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23 Feb 2009 : Column 107

One thing struck me about the public response in my area to the walk-outs. People would come up to me and say, “Look, Shona, why don’t the Government bring back apprenticeships?” I am probably not the only Labour Member to have heard such comments, because many people have not realised that the number of apprenticeships has increased in recent years. The people making those comments probably remember past mass apprenticeship programmes in the nationalised industries; I am thinking, for example, of the Central Electricity Generating Board, which trained thousands of apprentices. However, in the ’80s and ’90s, there was a decline in construction and UK manufacturing. Added to the mix were the privatisations and the fragmentation of the markets involved. That led to a decline in the number of companies investing in apprenticeships.

Yes, there has been a change in recent years, and I welcome it. I have heard snide comments tonight about the value of apprenticeships, but in my area people are doing high-quality apprenticeship training—four-year courses in engineering, for example. In North East Lincolnshire and North Lincolnshire, the two local authorities covered by my constituency, there are probably nearly 500 young people doing engineering and construction apprenticeships. They are just the people we need, and they will work on huge engineering projects such as the hydrodesulphurisation project at Lindsey oil refinery.

As was highlighted by the protests, however, there is a problem. The current itinerant work force, who tour the country working on construction projects and what are called the “shutdowns” in the refinery sector, are ageing. A lot of them did their apprenticeships in the nationalised industries; after that, apprenticeships withered because of economic downturns. Young people are coming through, but we have a gap in the middle. A representative from one of the oil refineries in my area told me that there will be an estimated shortage of 17,000 jobs in the engineering and construction sectors alone. Furthermore, earlier we heard my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) talk about the gap in the chemical industries sector.

We have to address such problems. Nobody today has really talked about the situation: previous generations who have gone through the system are coming to retirement, youngsters are coming through, but there is a gap in the middle. How will we address it? As we saw at Lindsey oil refinery, one way to address it is to bring in people from Italy; in the past, someone from another part of the UK would have been brought in. A few years back, there was similar upset when people from Teesside were brought in to work in the area. People in Grimsby, Cleethorpes and Immingham asked why the jobs did not go to local people. We have to look at how we fill the gap. There could be merit in having apprenticeships for older people, and not only for those of a younger age, to try to reskill people to meet the skills gap in engineering and construction in my constituency.

When I talk to employers in my area about skills training and the young people coming through, they say that apart from wanting people to be literate and numerate and to have the high-tech skills that virtually everybody from the age of five seems to have these days when it comes to computers, they want an emphasis on what could be termed “softer” skills, by which they mean
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how people behave in the workplace—for example, their punctuality, attitude and teamwork, which many employers feel is lacking because of the education and training systems. All the stuff in the Bill that we have considered is about hard skills such as those in engineering—there is not much about how to integrate into a workplace, which employers say will be essential.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to visit a new academy in my constituency, Oasis academy in Immingham, and what I saw there was quite inspirational. Immingham is only a couple of miles away from Killingholme, where Lindsey oil refinery is located. The academy was a marvellous blend of the academic and the vocational. It had car workshops and small engineering workshops. The head teacher placed equal emphasis on the academic and the vocational. I hope that the careers advice in that school will be very strong because of the ethos of its principal in valuing the vocational within an educational setting. We have to do that all the way through the system. We cannot just suddenly say to someone aged 16, “Here is some careers advice, and by the way apprenticeships are a really good thing to do.”

I have found that there is a resistance to apprenticeships, particularly in sectors such as engineering. People see those as dirty jobs; they do not value them and there is a resistance to going into them, despite the phenomenal work that has been done in my area by the Humberside Engineering Training Association, among others. I would like Ministers to take on board the fact that we must start valuing the vocational at a much earlier stage in the education system and seriously look at how we deal with the skills gap while we wait for these young apprentices to come through and take on the big construction and engineering projects in future.

9.3 pm

Mr. Dai Davies (Blaenau Gwent) (Ind): We are coming to the end of the debate and a number of Members still want to speak, so I will be as quick as I possibly can.

In 1976, I was privileged to be part of an apprenticeship scheme in the steel industry as an electrical engineering apprentice and I saw thousands of people come through the industry at that time. As the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) said, that was done through the nationalised industries, which had recognised training areas. It was a simple process; we have heard today that the proposed process might not be quite so simple. It was a City and Guilds four-year apprenticeship that was indentured—time-served, as it was called then—with three and a half years’ training and six months’ on-the-job experience so that when someone finished their time, they could go out and look for a job having done the job itself. That feature has been lost now. People look at training as an end in itself, but have they had the experience of delivering the service? We need to look at that carefully.

We have heard big numbers for the amount of apprenticeships, but this is not just about numbers but about quality. There is a huge difference between training courses and apprenticeships to gain skills. An apprenticeship—an indentured or a time-served apprenticeship—is much more than just a training course, but there are rolesto be played within training courses that lead to apprenticeships. The best engineers we ever had coming through the industry, in my opinion, were
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those who did an apprenticeship, went to university and came back—they came back on the tools with a degree, rather than the other way around. That is very important in the mechanical and electrical fields, in carpentry and even in administration. Work-based experience is vital.

There is also a huge role to be played by trade union reps. I am registered with the TUC, and trade union reps have a huge role to play in encouraging people—especially adults—who have been out of education for a long time to regain the desire to be educated. Trade union reps have a huge role, as do community learning reps in the voluntary sector. There are huge opportunities and we have not even scratched the surface of them. There is lots of work to be had, too.

We have heard a little about the shared apprenticeships tonight, and I urge the Government to talk to people such as those in the steel industry, which still has a very good apprenticeship scheme. They should use that experience and pass it on to small and medium-sized enterprises. They could use the industry as a training base. There is also an opportunity for local authorities that own industrial areas to join up the factories on the industrial estates and set up a training centre. It works. We have one in my constituency.

I also want to touch briefly on sponsored apprenticeships. As the apprenticeship schemes wound down in the ’80s and into the ’90s, industry looked at how it could use sponsorship to take on extra apprentices. For instance, in my borough council, if 4,000 people paid £1 a week, that raised £4,000 and gave lots of opportunities for employment. The health service employs millions of people. Could we afford £1? I think so. I know that Mr. Speaker has assisted with apprenticeships in this place. If we gave £10 a week, which is not a lot to ask, another group of apprentices could be employed. I think that we should really consider sponsored apprenticeships.

We have heard about adults coming back into training. When the steel industry shut down in my constituency, people of 35 or 40 years of age had to look for a new trade and a new skill. They could not afford to. How does someone put their life on hold to train? One huge shortage in our area is of social workers. We need social workers. We have shipped them in from Canada, Romania and all across the world. Why not provide our own? There needs to be a sponsorship scheme to do that. How can someone pay the mortgage when they are training for three years? We need to look at that carefully.

We can identify the youngsters we can help. We have heard about directing them into higher education and apprenticeships, but those opportunities must be available for all. Those who can go to university to obtain certain skills will have them, but we need to encourage other young people.

We have talked about schools and education, but we should not forget the governing bodies. As a governor at primary and secondary level, I know that the training of governors and their involvement in encouraging children are very important. We have not even talked about governors tonight.

Finally, I want to discuss two other issues. The first is targeted apprenticeships. We have heard that the construction industry can provide a huge opportunity and we should look at where we can maximise it. There is masses of work out there, and it needs to be done.

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I also urge the two Secretaries of State to talk to the devolved Administrations, particularly that in Wales. There are measures in the Bill that we would certainly want, such as education beyond 16 going into training and apprenticeships. I ask the Secretaries of State to talk to the Welsh Assembly Government. Rather than going through a legislative competence order, which takes time and is administratively slow, we should do what we can in the Bill for the devolved Administrations, too.

9.8 pm

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I welcome the Bill and believe that it will further solidify the Government’s work on skills, apprenticeships and learning, as well as taking some of the agenda forward.

I want to mention some of the key measures in the Bill that deserve special attention and to seek reassurances from the Government on one or two points. Let me start with the Sure Start children’s centres, which have been a huge success in my constituency and around the country. I am pleased that the Bill will establish them as statutory bodies and will place a requirement on local authorities to ensure that there are a sufficient number to cope with the need in their area. I now have six Sure Start centres in my constituency, five of which serve the ex-mining villages. One thing that I have learned from my many visits to the centres is that Sure Start is a policy for the long term. It is absolutely essential that these centres continue to be funded well into the future. I say that because if we are to go about improving social mobility, we have to raise aspirations among families when children are very young indeed. We not only need to raise aspirations, but to give families support from a range of agencies, whose involvement is necessary when children are young in order to encourage them through school and into higher level education.

It was interesting to note that when the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) was talking about the future funding of Sure Start centres, he failed to mention one important aspect of the funding: we cannot only fund the centres themselves, important though that is. We have to support agencies and statutory bodies that work through children’s centres, which means securing funding in the future for education, and for regeneration in the community, because children have to live in decent housing if they are to learn at school. We also need to fund the health service and primary care trusts at current levels, because children and their families have to be able to access a wide range of health services in the community. I am not sure that I was reassured on behalf of my constituents by the comments made by the Opposition. I cannot stress enough how critical it is that we stick with a policy of investing in Sure Start for the long term.

I would like to say something briefly about support for local authorities when they take on the responsibility for 16-to-19 learning from the Learning and Skills Council. I welcome that policy direction, but there is clearly a need to build capacity in local government to take on such a role, which is where the rationale for the establishment of the Young People’s Learning Agency comes in. However, I hope that the Government continue to review how essential it is to have such an agency in the long term, as local authorities once again build up competence in this area.

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I noted the separation between the ensuring of quality and curriculum development, which is another good aspect of the Bill. Those of us who have served on Select Committees in the past have argued for that, and it is essential, not least because, like everyone else in the Chamber, I am fed up with what happens each August when all our young people, and the wonderful efforts that they have made in passing exams, are denigrated, usually by Opposition Members.

I wanted to take the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) to task on his use of the information from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring —CEM—at Durham university. I have been to talk to those at CEM on at least two occasions, I raised the points made by the centre with the chief statistician at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and it would appear that what CEM measures and what the Government measure, with regard to qualifications, the number of people getting them and levels of qualification, are two different things. CEM measures attainment, and we have to make an important distinction. We are not necessarily saying that someone getting an A at A-level today is any cleverer than someone getting an A in an A-level 20 years ago, but we are saying that more young people now have the ability to get an A at A-level because we have improved education so much. It is important to make that distinction.

I am particularly pleased with the attention given in the Bill to the education of young people in juvenile custody. There are three prisons and a young offender institution in my constituency, so I follow education in prisons closely. I hope that giving local authorities responsibility for education in prison will work out well in practice and follow what happened when primary care trusts took over responsibility for health in prisons.

I welcome the new reserved powers that are being given to local authorities to intervene in seriously underperforming schools. That matter has not been mentioned much in the debate, but it is absolutely critical for our young people. We are sometimes a bit mealy-mouthed about it and tolerate schools not performing as well as they should for young people in their areas. We hang back until too many young people have had their education either ruined or not delivered as it should be, which affects their future life opportunities. It is important that we intervene as early as possible to turn schools around.

I welcome also the move to put children’s trusts on a statutory footing. Where they work well, they play an important role in producing multi-agency plans and bringing together agencies that are essential to improving children’s well-being and safeguarding them. It is important that those trusts and the plans that they produce on behalf of children’s services are strengthened.

The Bill will give all suitably qualified young people the right to an apprenticeship by 2013 and create the National Apprenticeship Service. I am keen for all young people to get adequate information, advice and guidance about apprenticeships in school, and perhaps that could be reconsidered in Committee. That is particularly important in my region, the north-east, because we have 6.5 per cent. of all apprenticeships, a much larger proportion than our share of 16 to 18-year-olds. Of course, that number is vastly improved since 1997, when
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very few young people in my constituency had the opportunity to undertake an apprenticeship. We now have some wonderful examples such as the Esh Group working with New college, Durham, to provide new apprenticeship opportunities for young people. Just a few weeks ago, I presented an award at New college to the person who had been declared the best plumber in the country at the UK SkillPLUMB awards.

We need to consider whether apprenticeships are being made as attractive to young women as they are to young men. A huge range of apprenticeships are available, but I am not sure whether the message is getting through to young women in schools and colleges.

We must pay some attention to the quality of apprenticeships and ensure that employers come forward to provide opportunities for our young people, particularly in this time of economic downturn. I agree with what the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) said about the need to tidy up some of the information that is available, so that we can check on the quality of apprenticeships and ensure that they are a good-quality project in which our young people are keen to engage. If apprenticeships are to be successful, it is critical that they also meet the needs of employers.

I know that the Minister for Schools and Learners, who was in his place earlier, is aware of the concerns that have been raised with hon. Members by Unison, GMB and Unite about the establishment and operation of the new school support staff negotiating body. I know that he has set out a response to them, which I hope will address their concerns. I would be grateful for additional reassurances that the unions will have a strong role to play in negotiations on behalf of their members.

I do not have time to press some of the points that I wanted to make, but I urge Government Front Benchers to take on board representations that they have received from the Federation of Awarding Bodies, which is worried about whether Ofqual genuinely has the power that it needs to secure standards; and from the National Deaf Children’s Society, which made important points about SEN and the need for schools with proper acoustics. That is especially important in the context of Building Schools for the Future and the number of schools that are being rebuilt. The Children’s Society also made representations, and the North East chamber of commerce urges sub-regional arrangements for the Young People’s Learning Agency to ensure that good strategic direction is maintained and, indeed, put in place where necessary.

9.21 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I am short of time, so I shall concentrate on my main theme, which is sixth-form colleges. I greatly welcome the Bill’s provisions for them. I have been a governor of Luton sixth-form college for 19 years—continuously since the incorporation. I also taught A-level in a further education college, so I know something about the subject.

I spoke early in my parliamentary career about sixth-form colleges, urging the Government to try to develop more of them. I still believe that that is vital for our future. They are the most successful educational institutions in Britain—no other compares with them for success. They do a superb job, but there are too few.

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