Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Willetts: I accept that. That is why the Government’s various changes to the careers service over the past 10 years have really not helped. I do not think that the quality of careers advice, or the creation of Connexions, has helped at all. We believe that there should be a professional all-age careers advice service that independently assists young people who are making their way in the world. There have been at least two sets of changes. The
11 Jun 2009 : Column 989
dismantling of the Careers Service as it existed in 1997 was a mistake. The chopping and changing on Connexions has not helped. We attach a large amount of importance to independent careers advice. The Minister has to accept that the Government’s record of chopping and changing, and of focusing on Connexions instead of independent careers advice, has not helped young people through the maze that confronts them. So the first item on my list is better careers advice from a genuine, independent, professional careers service.

The second item on my list is internships. I remember the launch in January of the national internship scheme by the former Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), using that well-known device, an interview with The Daily Telegraph. He identified Microsoft and Barclays as companies that would join that scheme. I hope that the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, who will wind up the debate, can give us some more information about that. Since then, Barclays and Microsoft have made it clear that they already run internship schemes. They seem to have no proposals to change them in any way. We have heard about lists of places in a graduate talent pool that has been launched.

I received a written answer today from the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property. I had tried to identify how seriously the Government were taking the new internship scheme by finding out how much money they had allocated to it. So far as I can tell from his answer, they have put £800,000 into a website. I have to say that it is not at all clear how the 5,000 extra internships are to be financed, or what has happened to the national internship scheme beyond the work on that website on opportunities. That website may be admirable, but it is not quite what his previous boss launched in January.

What has happened to the national internship scheme, and what resources are the Government putting behind it? I am interested in that, because we understand and accept the evidence, which is absolutely clear: the concentration of internships in London and the south-east, and restricted access to them, is a barrier. That is why the Social Mobility Foundation, and its work with internships in this House, is such an excellent initiative. That was the second item on my list.

The third item on the list, of course, is the “three As at A-level” challenge. To get into the competitive professions, which often select from a relatively small group of universities, one needs very good A-level grades. There are a variety of attempts to tackle the problem. We have to be wary of any system that just chucks applicants into the bin because they have been to private school, or because we think that they come from an affluent background. We need measures that are clear, defensible and well understood.

The scheme that has impressed me most is that at King’s College, which aims at broadening access to Guy’s, King’s and St. Thomas’ school of medicine. King’s College has created up to 50 extra places a year, on top of its mainstream recruitment, for students from state schools in 15 of the poorest London boroughs. It accepts them with A-level grades down to two Bs and a C, but they are subject to an internationally recognised
11 Jun 2009 : Column 990
aptitude test, so that there is an objective test of their merit; the scheme is not simply an exercise in social selection. The places are additional, so no one with good grades misses out. There is also an extra year—an American-style foundation year—to bring those students up to the level that is necessary if they are to be properly trained and are to qualify as doctors.

Of course, one can only leave that medical school as a doctor, with a proper qualification, if one has achieved exactly the same high level as others have had to achieve before. None of us wants to have heart surgery performed by a consultant who may not have been very good at it, but who at least came from a poor background. There comes a point when sheer objective standards matter, and one can pass only if one has achieved those standards. That seems an admirable initiative. Again, I hoped that we might hear more from the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, who opened the debate, about the Department’s ideas on how that initiative could be extended.

There are two other items on our list of five. The fourth item is skills apprenticeships and better routes from apprenticeships to university. The Minister said that the UCAS points system would include apprenticeships, but that is easier said than done. I have had conversations with UCAS about that, as I am sure the Ministers will have had, but the UCAS application form and website are unclear and there is very little about apprenticeships.

There is a lot of information about the value attached to music grades, for example, and a reference to the value attached to a horsemanship qualification, but trying to track down the value attached to an apprenticeship is not at all easy. UCAS says that its problem, which invokes a separate debate that we have had on other occasions, is that there is such a diversity of training schemes called apprenticeships. The term “apprenticeships” no longer involves simply level 3, but level 2, so it is difficult for UCAS to include apprenticeships automatically on its form. If the Minister, in his winding-up speech, were to flesh out what the other Minister said in her opening speech about exactly how all those apprenticeships will involve UCAS, that would be very interesting. We strongly support such apprenticeships, and I have urged UCAS to do better on identifying them.

Mr. Milburn: The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point, but what is his view on the solution that the panel received in evidence? There has been a huge growth in the number of apprenticeships, and we can argue about whether that is right or wrong, but opening up such opportunities to a mix of in-college and on-the-job training seems to be a broadly good thing. There is, none the less, a transitional problem: when only 0.2 per cent. of apprentices are able to go on to further or higher education, there is at best a silo problem in our training and education system. What would he do about that?

Mr. Willetts: We support apprenticeships, but part of the problem is the new broader definition of apprenticeships, which includes level 2 as well as level 3 and is part of the UCAS problem. So far as I know, no other advanced western country calls level 2 “apprenticeships”; by and large that description is reserved for level 3, as it used to be here.

Using some of the Train to Gain budget, we have proposed skills scholarships aimed specifically at funding apprentices to go to university. We made the initial
11 Jun 2009 : Column 991
suggestion because the figures are so low. If the Minister were to give us reliable figures, we would appreciate it, because they are hard to pin down. We suggested funding 2,000 apprentices to go to university and take courses that would enable them to develop the skills that they had already displayed in their apprenticeship, and we thought that it would be a very good use of a modest part of the Train to Gain budget.

Mr. Sheerman: We are enjoying what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but is not the real gap between the traditional three to four-year apprenticeship in engineering—the crème de la crème—and the average one-year apprenticeship in retailing and distribution? In between, we need health authorities, local government, universities—everybody—to create apprenticeships so that there is a much broader mix of apprenticeships. Then they will go through into higher education.

Mr. Willetts: I completely agree, and have nothing to add to that excellent comment. It is one reason why we, through parliamentary questions, have been trying to track the record, not least of Departments and quangos, on apprenticeships. It is a very mixed record indeed, with large swathes of Whitehall not having taken on apprenticeships but giving a very poor performance, which we hope will now improve.

The final item on my list of five barriers to overcome involves opportunities later in life. Many professions tell us that the broader social mix of their recruitment comes from the older people whom they recruit. Sadly, they are able to reach out more widely at that level than they are through the conventional route of 18-year-olds who go to university and are then recruited. Of course, we have to do better with the 18-year-olds and the university route, but opportunities in later life do matter, and we should not forget universities’ continuing unhappiness about the equivalent level qualification—ELQ—policy, which means that if someone already has a university qualification in something completely unrelated, and if they want to go back to university and study something else many years later, it is very hard to change career and direction. We should not forget the disappearance of other adult learning places, either.

The Open university, a fantastic institution that does such a good job in spreading access to higher education, has lost £30 million as a result of the ELQ policy. Birkbeck college is an institution with which many on the Labour Benchers have an association: when the ELQ policy was proposed, it lost one third of its students at a cost of £7.8 million. The fact that such institutions, which are particularly devoted to giving people a second chance, were worst hit by the ELQ policy shows that there was a failure to ensure that people have opportunities later in life.

I enjoyed the Minister’s speech and I look forward to what the right hon. Member for Darlington will say about his report. If his final proposals match the excellent analysis in the opening two reports, we have much to look forward to.

3.1 pm

Mr. Alan Milburn (Darlington) (Lab): It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts). At some points in his speech, his insight and knowledge were in danger of creating a progressive consensus in the House; then, however, he lapsed into
11 Jun 2009 : Column 992
criticism rather deeper than I would have expected from him. It is also a great pleasure to follow the Minister, whom I congratulate on her appointment to an important post. I know that the work that she is and will be doing on social exclusion, and her knowledge from first-hand experience, will be brought to bear and make an enormous difference to the Government’s policy.

I very much welcome this debate, and I thank the Government and the business managers for finding time for it. It is about an important issue. For me at least, how we ensure that as wide as possible a pool of talent gets access and opportunities to pursue a professional career goes to the heart of what a modern Britain should look like. I am proud to have served as part of a Government who have worked so hard over so many years to open up more opportunities to people. One of the things to strike me, following the contribution of the hon. Member for Havant, is that in one sense there is a progressive consensus nowadays in the House. All parties have come to the view that ensuring that Britain is a mobile society is a perfectly legitimate objective—and, indeed, a priority—for public policy.

This debate gives me an opportunity to place on the record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for asking me to chair the panel on fair access to the professions. I also thank my fellow panel members and my excellent Cabinet Office strategy unit secretariat for their hard work.

The debate comes at a particularly timely point in our considerations because we have just finished our call for evidence. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) on Monday, when I was before the Children, Schools and Families Committee, which he chairs, I have been staggered by the response. There have been 13,000 pages of evidence from a rich variety of organisations. Most importantly of all, we have heard from young people themselves, who have had some stark, insightful things to say to us. We have also heard from employers and representatives of trade unions, schools, universities, professional organisations and voluntary-sector bodies.

That fantastic response indicates that the broad issue of social mobility and the narrower issue of access to the professions strike a chord in the British psyche. They do so for a number of reasons. First, people nowadays recognise the growing importance of professional employment opportunities. As we speak, one in three of all jobs in the British economy are either managerial or professional. As the Minister said a moment or two ago, the number of such jobs is set to rise dramatically in the years to come. Some of the evidence that we have received suggests that fully nine in 10 of all future job opportunities in this country in the next decade or so will be professional in nature. It is possible that once retirements are taken into account, the country will need to recruit a further 7 million professional workers over the course of the next decade or so. At a time of deep and painful global economic recession, it is very easy to forget that our professions—our armed services, our cultural industries, our doctors, our lawyers—are genuinely among the leaders in the world. We should therefore have confidence in the fact that Britain is incredibly well placed to compete in the more knowledge-based economies that we are bound to see in the years to come.

11 Jun 2009 : Column 993

Secondly, if the trend of recent decades continues into future decades, and we see falling demand for unskilled labour, as we are bound to do, and rising demand for skilled labour, as will probably occur, there is a terrible risk that we will end up with people who, without qualifications or skills, risk being left behind economically and stranded socially. Already, in this city of London, well over half of all jobs are professional jobs—and a jolly good thing too. In my part of the world, the north-east, the proportion is under one third. Unless appropriate action is taken in the years to come, we risk seeing more employment segregation, not less.

Thirdly, people feel that these social developments offer a great opportunity as well as a great challenge. The generation of the late 1950s, of which I am part, were the beneficiaries of a mobility in society that came about because of a change in the economy—what the academics call more room at the top. In simple terms, more service jobs and more professional jobs became available, which benefited both men and women—particularly, perhaps, women, allied with the huge social changes that we saw in the 1960s. However, a more fluid society was not something that simply happened by chance: it happened in part because a big policy choice was made. It came about as a consequence of Government action, not just inevitable economic and social change. Having won a pretty gruelling war in which so many people in our country made such enormous sacrifices, during that decade—the 1950s—there was a shared determination to win the peace.

I suppose that that commitment found its expression in the huge achievements of the post-war Labour Government—universal education, full employment and a modern welfare state. Millions of people received opportunities that they would not otherwise have done—me included. I have been very fortunate in my life. I grew up on a council estate and ended up in the Cabinet. I sometimes worry whether that might still be possible today; our ambition, surely, has to be to make it so, and I believe that we can. Given the huge changes that we are going to see not just in our national economy but in the global economy, we can, provided that we make the right policy choices, have a second great wave of social mobility in our country, where new opportunities for this generation and future generations are opened up.

Fourthly, we have to be candid in this debate. We can discuss to what extent we have reduced inequality or tackled poverty in recent years, but we can accept that there has, at a minimum, been progress: there are far fewer poor people than there were. That is a great achievement. However, two decades after Mrs. Thatcher declared that the closed shop was dead in the workplace, we still have too much of a closed shop society. The way that I characterise it is this: we might have raised the glass ceiling, but we certainly have not, as yet, broken through it. Among the evidence that the hon. Member for Havant and my hon. Friend the Minister referred to is that which we have received about the nature of professional employment. The worrying thing is that despite the many commendable efforts on the part of the professions—all the initiatives, schemes, mentorships and so on—we have seen greater, not less, social exclusivity. It is not just the fact that three in four of our judges are privately educated. It is not just the fact that fully half
11 Jun 2009 : Column 994
of our senior civil servants received a private education. It is not even the fact that although only 7 per cent. of the population attend an independent school, fully two thirds of the Members of the House of Lords and one third of the Members of this place were privately educated. It is broader than that.

Over time, social exclusivity has got worse rather than better across all the professions. The panel’s first report indicates that the older generation of today’s professionals, people born, like I was, about 1958—a long time ago—on average came from families with incomes 17 per cent. above that of the average family. For the younger generation of today’s professionals, the people born about 1970, that figure had risen to 27 per cent. That is the generation of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property. On average, today’s doctors and lawyers come from families with incomes two thirds above that of the average family. As the hon. Member for Havant interestingly pointed out, guess which profession has become the most socially exclusive over that period? I use only one word—journalism.

There has been a dramatic change, and the weight of that evidence points to one thing. Despite the progress that has been made over recent times, there is an enormous chasm between where we are and where we need to be if we are to realise the social benefits of a huge potential increase in professional employment opportunities in the years to come.

This is not just an issue for those at the bottom of society. Too many able kids from an average income background or from middle-class families find themselves losing out in the race for a professional job, so this is an issue not for the minority in our country but for the majority. It matters to what President Clinton once famously referred to as “the forgotten middle classes”. If the aspirations that most hard-working families have for themselves, their children and their communities are thwarted, social responsibility and individual endeavour are inevitably undermined.

What has struck me forcefully during the course of the panel’s proceedings, having listened to young people from a wide variety of backgrounds, is the emergence of what I call the “not for the likes of me” syndrome. People might say, “I am thinking of becoming a nurse, but it is not for the likes of me to become a doctor”, or “I might go into hairdressing, but I would never consider a career in law”. Something quite profound is happening. When one in two kids whose parents are professionals are willing to consider a professional career, that is a fantastic thing. But when only one in six kids from average income backgrounds—not the most disadvantaged—are willing to consider a professional career, surely we have an aspiration gap that we have to find a way of bridging.

Mr. Hayes: I am so excited by the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, and the one that preceded it, that I am obliged to intervene to ask whether he agrees that social cohesion is particularly damaged by what he has just described. It is not that people’s aspiration or ambitions have changed, but their means of achieving their ambitions seem ever more remote, leaving them discouraged, depressed, even hostile.

Next Section Index Home Page