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Apprenticeships

Volume 478: debated on Thursday 26 June 2008

Government plans to allocate £927 million in the next financial year to expand and improve apprenticeships were published in the Learning and Skills Council grant letter issued on 16 November 2007.

Notwithstanding the Minister’s answer, for which I am grateful, the construction sector has serious difficulties, as next month’s Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians’ report is likely to show. What is the Minister doing to tackle a position in which the industry needs 90,000 new recruits each year, but employers take on just 7,000 apprentices, which is many fewer than further education colleges produce? Surely this reservoir of untapped talent has to be tapped as a national priority, because apprenticeships are a firm foundation for our future success.

My hon. Friend is right. Throughout the country, cranes are up in our cities for programmes such as house building, the Olympics in London, Building Schools for the Future and new hospitals. We need construction workers for those projects and we want to see an increase in apprenticeships. I am pleased that the number of apprenticeships has increased by a third in the last year with 21,000 people starting apprenticeships in the construction industry, and yesterday we were able to announce a three-year deal with the sector skills council for the construction sector, with a £135 million investment in training and 2,000 specialist apprenticeships to increase the number further.

The Minister knows that the average number of apprentices in training overall has declined as more emphasis has been placed on other forms of workplace training, such as Train to Gain. The Government are banking on Train to Gain, even though it has emerged that the basic contract does not pay for much beyond assessing employees’ existing skills. What a contrast with the best of apprenticeships of the kind that you completed, Mr. Speaker. The Government must know that the failure to support apprenticeships and emphasise Train to Gain is in stark contrast with the LSC survey that found that the majority of employers who have signed up to Train to Gain have seen

“no financial benefit from taking part.”

Why does the Minister think that is?

I just wish that before the hon. Gentleman stood up he would check his facts. If he looked properly at what is happening in Train to Gain, he would see that the vast majority, 77 per cent., of those pursuing Train to Gain, are in the higher bracket. That includes training, new qualifications, and an increase in productivity for employers. That is why there is an 80 per cent. satisfaction rate with Train to Gain among employers. The hon. Gentleman needs to do better and might think about going on a course himself.

The Government have made huge progress in increasing the number of apprenticeships in the last decade and improving completion rates. But is it not the case that one of the reasons that young people give for not completing is the lack of portability of the apprenticeship? Will the Minister say something about the Government’s efforts to improve the transferability of apprenticeships?

My hon. Friend is right. We want to see progression, so that it is clear that the apprenticeship is about quality, and we will introduce an apprenticeship Bill to underline that. Part of that quality is progression to a foundation degree, and the clear indication is that that is linked to higher skills. We are working with the Higher Education Funding Council on matching data sets so that we can show properly how many apprenticeships are taking that route and progressing.

Our review said that we want more group training associations. With a hub and spoke model, that allows apprentices the opportunity to move across organisations, which is especially relevant for small and medium-sized enterprises.

I am sure that I speak for my hon. Friends when I say that we welcome the huge increase in the number of young people involved in apprenticeships, and I compliment the Government on that. However, it is a real problem that, in the pursuit of those ambitious targets, there are far more programme-led apprenticeships in our colleges, with no employer involved. The danger is that that will tarnish the brand of apprenticeships and short-change our young people. Will the Minister respond to that point and give the House some indication of how many apprenticeships will be programme led, as opposed to employer led, this year?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the spirit in which he put his question. I reassure him that all the 250,000 apprenticeships in the expansion since 1997 are proper apprenticeships: they are not programme-led apprenticeships. However, he is right that there are many programme-led apprenticeships in our FE colleges. As we all know, there is a problem with young people not in education or training. Many young people may not be ready to take an apprenticeship at 16 but, with the initial training in college of a programme-led apprenticeship, they may be ready by 17 or 18. When we scrutinised the Learning and Skills Act 2000, organisations such as the Prince’s Trust supported programme-led apprenticeships because they saw the benefits that they bring. This year’s increase of 22,000 extra learners on apprenticeships is in proper apprenticeships with a work-based element.