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Volume 487: debated on Monday 26 January 2009

The young apprenticeship programme for 14 to 16-year-olds is a successful pilot that has been available in selected areas since 2004. The budget for 2009-10 is £31.75 million, and is administered by the Learning and Skills Council. The programme will support some 9,000 learners.

Is the Minister aware that secondary schools in my constituency are aligning their timetables to provide a wider range of vocational opportunities for young people, partly by playing to the strengths of each school? Can she confirm that funding will continue for initiatives of that kind as well as for young apprenticeships, at least under the present Government?

My hon. Friend is a good advocate for her local authority and for young people in her local school.

Partnership working is key to all parts of our education system, but is particularly relevant to the 14-to-19 and 14-to-16 age groups. The young apprenticeship programme brings together employers and young people while they are learning at school. We are also piloting young apprenticeship schemes alongside diplomas, which, as we roll out new lines, will offer even more mechanisms for partnership working.

In her earlier answer, the Minister acknowledged that there were almost 100,000 fewer apprenticeships this year than the Prime Minister had anticipated in his announcement in 2003. If we can only achieve a figure of around 230,000 after the years of boom, how many apprenticeships does she think there will be next year, during the years of bust?

I assure the hon. Lady that we intend to increase the number of apprenticeship places. I remind her that we recently announced investment of £140 million with a target of an additional 35,000 places, many of which we are trying to create in the public sector. There is an untapped opportunity there, which the Government are looking into.

My hon. Friend is much in demand today as I, too, would like to invite her to my constituency to visit the new West Lancashire construction academy. It is a state-of-the-art facility offering training and apprenticeships in the construction industry, and we will need those skills in preparation for the return of demand in the housing market and, of course, for the building of affordable housing, especially in my constituency.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we must look to the future. I also agree with something that was said at a summit I attended recently: the lesson has been learned that after coming out of downturns the biggest regret has always been that people did not invest sufficiently in training. We are certainly not going to make that mistake. If I go on a regional tour, after I have been through Yorkshire I am sure it will not be too far to visit the north-west, and I will certainly try to find time to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency.

On her tour, would the Minister care to call in at Castle Point in Essex? We should all welcome the Government’s apprenticeships initiative. It is important, particularly in the current economic environment, that we invest for the future. Will the Minister be spending any additional funding to try to get employers involved in targeting this particular age group, in order to make sure they understand both that there is relevance in what they are doing and that there is a future opportunity for them with real employees on work-based schemes?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Unlike my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners, I did not study geography at A-level, but even I would struggle to think of Essex as on the way from Wakefield up through the north-west. On the hon. Gentleman’s other point, however, getting employers involved is certainly crucial. Just last month we published our building stronger partnerships employer engagement strategy. It is important to get employers involved as early as possible in the education of young people. There are benefits on both sides—for schools and employers. By working closely together, we can get the benefits to which the hon. Gentleman referred.