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Vocational Education

Volume 563: debated on Tuesday 4 June 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Swayne.)

On this sunny morning, it is a real joy to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray, and I hope that our expectation of great chairmanship will be delivered by the end of the sitting.

Tomorrow is vocational qualifications day, so this debate is particularly timely. That annual celebration of vocational qualifications is organised by the Edge Foundation and quite properly supported by all political parties and, most importantly, by colleges, training providers and awarding bodies. Celebrations and events will be held around the country, with outstanding achievements being recognised through VQ learner and employer awards. By celebrating learners and employers, VQ day recognises that the relationship between them, supported by providers, is crucial if we are to deliver effective vocational learning that meets the needs of both employers and the economy.

I have been struck by the number of individuals and organisations that have contacted me to say that they are extremely interested in today’s debate, including Cambridge Assessment, Clive Wilson—Franklin College’s excellent associate principal—the Association of Colleges, the National Grid, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, Pearson, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, the Prince’s Trust, the Federation of Small Businesses, the National Union of Students, McDonald’s and the Science Council.

That avalanche of interest is all the more amazing for the consistency with which those different organisations have raised the key issues for setting the landscape fair for vocational education in future. I can identify four broad concerns: first, the need for vocational education in key stages 4 and 5 to be placed in a broad and balanced curriculum offer; secondly, the importance of careers information, advice and guidance being impartial and linked to the economy’s needs; thirdly, the role of apprenticeships; and finally, the challenge of reskilling adults, particularly those who have become workless. Let me take each in turn.

The first issue is about all students having access to a vocational offer within a broad and balanced curriculum. Edge states a bold vision that I hope we can embrace. It has stated that it wants

“an education system where people discover all their talents achieve excellent results and are better prepared for apprenticeships, higher education and work”.

In my opinion, having worked hard to lead a college in delivering improving progression outcomes for students year on year, secondary education in 2010 had arrived at a positive place. That was largely down to the practical good sense of school and college leaders, exam boards and employers, working together within a largely stable framework set by the Government.

I apologise for being late, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. For many years in Northern Ireland, it was them and us—it was the industry and educationists—but over the past couple of years, the two sides have come together, which encourages young people and helps them to get the skill base that is essential. Does he agree that that is certainly one way to achieve what he wants?

Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about employers and educationists coming together to set an agenda, which can be very powerful in liberating young people and delivering on their potential.

Through a focus on personalised learning, student achievement was being raised and student progression to work and higher education improved. Such personalisation of learning is important. Through the flexible use of BTEC firsts and BTEC nationals, as well as similar qualifications, general vocational qualifications were finding a place alongside GCSEs and A-levels, which led to students achieving more at both 16 and 18. Most importantly, progression into employment and higher education, though not perfect, was strong and improving.

Interestingly, a new study by London Economics shows that a higher proportion of students who do a BTEC and a degree end up in work than those who do straight A-levels and a degree. The research also shows the highly vocationalised HE choices of ex-BTEC students, particularly in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—and business finance. Across all regions, BTEC graduates in skilled occupations earn more than their contemporaries. The curriculum we had in 2010 is therefore delivering results for us today. Even the ill-fated diploma spawned the engineering diploma, which has been fêted by engineering employers and HE providers for placing industry in the curriculum driving seat, thereby delivering for young people and the economy, as the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) has pointed out.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing in this Chamber a very important debate, which every one of us can relate to our own constituencies. Does he agree that one important opportunity in engineering at the moment is for young girls and young ladies? It is a job not only for young men, but for ladies and girls. There has been an example of that in Northern Ireland, with more young girls—and young people—being involved and wanting to do engineering. Should more be done to promote that among the female part of the population?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Many good projects are in place to get girls into engineering, and they must continue to be supported. I noticed in the information sent out by the National Grid how much it stresses the importance of bringing more women into engineering. After all, that covers 50% or so of the potential talent pool, so we need women engineers to help to drive forward the economy.

I hope that the Government, in their consultation to reform vocational qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds, listen to the wise counsel of the Association of Colleges and others, who caution against a rigid approach to routes that divide qualifications and young people into particular outcomes. The AOC’s Martin Doel has made the point well:

“Currently students can choose a mix of qualifications: they can study an A level alongside a substantial vocational qualification. We are concerned that separate ‘routes’ which segregate qualifications into pre-determined categories will restrict student choice.”

Edge’s insights are also helpful. It has argued:

“Vocational education is often presented as suitable for the 50% of young people who don’t go to university. Young people who do well in academic subjects are systematically steered away from vocational options. This is wrong: it limits choice. All young people should experience academic, artistic, technical, practical and vocational learning as part of a broad and balanced 14-18 curriculum which leads to an overarching diploma at 18.”

The overarching diploma sounds like Labour’s excellent tech bacc initiative, which the party is sensibly consulting on, and which forms part of the ongoing work of Labour’s skills taskforce, chaired by Professor Chris Husbands. By contrast, the Government are in danger of rushing out their alternative tech bacc without sufficient thought and planning, on a time scale that risks endangering the principle of developing a sound alternative for the forgotten 50%.

The Government would do well to listen to organisations such as Edge, which has a track record of engaging successfully with employers in delivering change through their university technical college programme and other initiatives, but, sadly, listening is not one of the Government’s strong points. They turn a deaf ear to those who speak with experience and knowledge, and instead assert that they, the Government—many of them have never worked outside policy think-tanks or media bubbles, and never worked in the real world—know best, even when confounded by the evidence. They pooh-pooh the evidence and press on regardless with their curriculum vandalism. A prime example is their insistence on imposing their narrow key stage 4 EBacc and the limited number of facilitating A-levels, set in a nostalgic image of 1950s grammar schools. Even today, The Times reports that these curriculum vandals are planning to replace GCSEs—a well understood and recognised brand—with something called “I-levels”. Will they never learn?

Before the Minister splutters that to criticise such a direction of travel is to accept lower standards and to become globally uncompetitive, let me assure him that it is not. Wanting high standards is a given across the parties; they are what we all want for our young people. Such an aim is not negotiable. Ironically, the Government’s deafness to evidence and their rejection of the common-sense approach of building on what they inherited in 2010 imperil the high standards that they say they seek. If there is any doubt about that, just reread the Education Committee’s excellent report on the EBacc.

The second area of universal concern was the state of careers education, information, advice and guidance. Again, the Select Committee did some excellent work in exposing the disastrous impact that the Government’s policy has sometimes had on that area. In our debate on the Select Committee’s report in this Chamber last month, it was clear that MPs across the House shared its concerns, but are the Government listening? I fear not. The AOC points out that good advice and guidance is crucial to helping young people make the right choices, and it draws attention to the perverse incentives in the current system that allow new schools to be established even where there is an over-supply of places, which is madness. As it points out, that militates against the provision of truly independent information, advice and guidance, because such advice might, for example, encourage a young person to consider other options than simply staying in the sixth form and doing A-levels.

The National Grid, and other such employers, recognises the value of work experience. It is disappointed that it is no longer a statutory requirement for schools in key stage 4. It says:

“We would urge policy makers to ensure that pre-16 students do get the opportunities to see industry at first hand—particularly STEM based occupations.”

The Federation of Small Businesses calls for a significant programme of careers education from early on in a young person’s education. As Edge says, a show-and-tell approach to careers is badly needed. Starting in primary schools, young people should meet and visit a wide variety of employers, apprentices, further education colleges, training providers and universities. They should also go to events such as the skills show in Birmingham, which has skills competitions, exhibitions and “have a go” areas.

Interestingly, we have just completed an employer-led investigation into the skills needs of the Humber, which I chaired on behalf of the Humber local enterprise partnership. The report, “Lifting the Lid: the Humber Skills Challenge”, will be published on Thursday. Two of the most significant concerns are the quality of careers education, information, advice and guidance and the lack of overriding priority given to teaching those essential employability skills. Why do the Government not rectify that by giving the resource, capacity and capability to LEPs to make the improvements that are badly needed to ensure that the education service delivers what local employers need both now and into the future? That is a way to deliver through City Deals what is needed and to allow city region leaders to make things happen. Why not go further and let LEPs commission Ofsted to do area-wide inspections of the teaching of employability skills in their areas? That would be localism in action and would directly empower employers and reward positive engagement between employers, education and training providers in a locality.

The third thing on which everyone agrees is that apprenticeships provide a significant work-based training opportunity as part of the vocational offer. The National Union of Students underlines the relationship between good impartial careers information, advice and guidance and the uptake of apprenticeships. It says:

“If more people are to be encouraged to enter higher level apprenticeships then work must be done to raise the profile amongst those responsible for delivering IAG.”

Both the previous Government and the current one have done some good work in developing and strengthening the apprenticeship brand, but, as Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment points out, what is really needed is a strong focus on revitalising the classical apprenticeship. The Richard review represents a strong step in the right direction, and Labour’s skills taskforce interim report is right to take the matter further. It says:

“Apprenticeships need to be longer, more rigorous and focused on the skills that will take our economy forward.”

The Work Foundation is right to recommend that Government should seek to persuade all large employers to sign an agreement to offer high-quality apprenticeships. There is an important leadership role to be played by employers’ organisations such as the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce to encourage even more employers to come forward and get involved.

In the Humber, we also identified a possible leadership role for the LEP not only in championing apprenticeships, but in considering establishing an apprenticeship training agency or an apprenticeship hub to support more small and medium-sized enterprises to take on apprentices.

In the quite understandable rush for robust higher level apprenticeships, there is a real danger of unintended consequences. We need to be alert to the concerns of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which says that

“it is imperative that the overall framework remains the same in order to provide stability and consistency for users.”

Furthermore, if access to level 2 apprenticeships is swept away, we risk leaving a significant gap for the almost 50% of youngsters who do not achieve the progression benchmark of five A* to C grades with maths and English to access level 3 programmes. Currently, they can access work-based training through that route.

Are we not in danger of leaving some people behind? I am talking about those who perhaps do not have the educational skills but who have the hand skills. It is important that we bring on those people as well. What opportunities can we give such people to enable them to reach high levels of achievement as well?

The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on the button. I am sure the Government will think through this matter carefully, because it is an area where further thought is needed.

Around 350,000 learners are currently on entry level and level 1 and 2 courses in colleges. The number of students seeking those sorts of courses will rise with the raising of the participation age. Serious thought needs to be given to how to give them the best work-based training options in the future. One option might be to look at developing longitudinal traineeships—the Minister is keen on championing traineeships—that can be matched to longer-term vocational training when considered as part of 16-to-19 study programmes. It would also be sensible to consider how the model might be extended into employment for those who are ready for work, but who are not academically able to access level 3 apprenticeships. If level 2 apprenticeships are no longer available, there needs to be funded flexibility in approach to support young people into meaningful, sustainable work through the traineeship brand.

The final area of concern relates to adult reskilling, particularly when trying to support and encourage people out of worklessness into employment. The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, which has a long history of success in this arena, makes a strong argument for allowing flexibility and bite-sized learning to be funded in a way that supports learners and employers. More than anything else it believes that

“adult vocational qualifications need to be recognised by learners and employers as well as providing flexibility in terms of design and credit accumulation. There is no doubt that the current levels of learning are not well understood; there is also no doubt that A-levels and degrees have better recognition even though they may not be fully understood. Our work with learners, employers and providers has shown that the unitised and credit accumulation approach which the QCF allows is powerful in helping people get into work and to improve their skills.”

In addition, it is clear that vocational skills delivery for the unemployed requires much more effective join-up between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Work and Pensions. There have been improvements to the delivery, and the Government should be congratulated on them, but there need to be more. The divide between those who are on the Work programme and those who are the responsibility of Jobcentre Plus does not encourage the development of the holistic, collaborative, personalised programmes that are needed to get people into sustainable employment. There remain silly barriers to accessing training, whereby people’s benefit receipts can cease prior to their securing work even when appropriate training is being followed.

In our Humber Skills Commission, we are bidding for the LEP to be empowered to control and oversee the delivery of programmes to tackle unemployment locally, and to be granted the authority to align local resources more effectively to that end. Such an approach, which would put local businesses and employers in the driving seat to motivate and reskill their local work force, may well be part of the answer. What is undoubtedly clear is the need for more ladders of opportunity and success to be created if we are to get the best out of the people we have already got. So, on the eve of vocational qualifications day, I am pleased to have had this opportunity today to stimulate a debate on the future of vocational education.

Thank you, Mr Gray, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on securing the debate. He is a complete expert on this issue, given his background, and I have been pleased to campaign with him on a subject that I will touch on later.

Part of the problem with debates on vocational education is that too often it is just seen in terms of its utilitarian value to the economy. We need to change that approach and see vocational education as a form of social justice. If vocational education is just subject to economic efficiency, it will always be subject to the whims of current economic policy. Vocational education should be integral to the national curriculum and the well-being of our young people. It provides a ladder away from poverty for the most disadvantaged.

The question we have to ask is why—despite all the initiatives begun under the previous Government—did youth unemployment rise to 1 million? Although this Government have stemmed the tide, youth unemployment remains a huge problem. To consider the issue holistically, we need a cradle-to-grave cultural change in vocational education.

Problems with youth unemployment do not just start when young people enter the job market; they start at home, with disadvantaged families. The problems carry on into our primary schools—such that one in five of our children still leave primary school unable to read, write or add up—and they continue into secondary school.

What can we do to change that situation? First, we must transform the reputation of skills and apprenticeships, which will require a sea change in our culture. Secondly, we must transform our vocational infrastructure. Thirdly, if—as I have argued—vocational education is about social justice, we need to ensure that resources are directed at the most disadvantaged. That means not only providing the ladders of opportunity, which the hon. Member for Scunthorpe mentioned, for those who want to get on, but reaching those who will not even take the first step.

For far too long we have talked about university, which has led to vocational education falling into neglect. Vocational education came to be seen as a second-class option, only suitable for those who did not want to do A-levels, rather than being seen—as it should be—as equal to university. If we are serious about tackling youth unemployment, we must ensure there is a parity of esteem between vocational education and traditional academia.

That is why I have been calling, since I have been in this House, for the introduction of a royal society for apprenticeships, which would work in a similar way to the Royal College of Surgeons and other such bodies. A royal society would dramatically increase the prestige and culture of apprenticeships, marking a sea change in how apprenticeships are viewed.

We also need to expand the range of jobs that vocational education can offer. Traditionally, people have assumed that if someone does an apprenticeship that means they must become a builder or a plumber. That assumption is wrong, which is why I took on Parliament’s first apprentice three years ago. I am now on my third, Aaron Farrell, who works in my office four days a week as well as studying for a level 3 apprenticeship in business administration. This experience has been good for Aaron and for my office, and I am pleased that other Members are beginning to do the same. Also, I pay tribute to the senior Clerk of the House of Commons for establishing the Clerk’s apprentices scheme. It is invaluable for a profession that is often seen as being closed off to those who are from a disadvantaged background.

We also need to make teachers aware of the benefits of apprenticeships. Edge has already been mentioned and according to that organisation two thirds of teachers regard their knowledge of apprenticeships as poor, and just one in four teachers recommend apprenticeships over higher education. Sadly, 23% of A-level pupils still say their school is far more concerned with “sending students to university”. That contrasts sharply with parents’ wishes. A clear majority of parents—78%—would support their child if they chose to take the vocational qualification route. Research from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shows that people who have a higher apprenticeship are 25% more employable than university graduates and that on average those with an apprenticeship qualification earn over £100,000 more throughout their lifetime than other employees.

I am glad that the Government are taking steps to address the problem of prestige and I welcome the technical baccalaureate, according to which vocational courses should have the same rigour and prestige as A-levels. However, we must go further. We need to encourage teachers to find out more about the benefits of apprenticeships and to promote those benefits directly to young people and their parents.

That can be done in simple but effective ways. For example, Harlow college, which I must remind the House is the No. 1 college in England according to the Department for Education, has a fantastic record of offering vocational education for young people and it recently held a very successful apprenticeship fair. Consequently, young people can make well-informed choices and apprenticeships can get the fair hearing that they deserve. A royal society for apprenticeships would offer rewards to apprentices in the same way that university students get graduation ceremonies.

However, this process is not all about changing the reputation of apprenticeships. We also need to provide the infrastructure to make it easier for businesses to take on people to gain vocational skills. To be fair to the Government, they have made good progress on that. I disagree with the hon. Member for Scunthorpe, who believes that the Government are only interested in academia. The Government have shown that they support vocational education by investing £1.5 billion in the sector in this financial year. As we know, since 2010 the number of apprenticeships in the country has increased by hundreds of thousands, and just last year in my constituency the number of apprenticeships increased by a phenomenal 78%.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with further education for young people is the lack of proper careers advice for them at the ages of 11, 12 and 13? That is the desperate situation that we have—young people are not given any professional careers advice, or they are only given very minimal advice, when they reach 12 or 13. That is the critical age, when such advice should be given.

I agree with my hon. Friend, but this issue is not just about careers advice. As I have said, children in school also need to be encouraged to do vocational education, which at the moment they are not.

Now that careers guidance has been placed inside schools, does the hon. Gentleman believe that schools necessarily have an in-built producer interest to say to young people that their best interests are served by staying on at school because the money will follow the pupil, and that what we are seeing is exactly the fears about the lack of clear pathways into vocational education being realised?

Unless I misunderstand the hon. Gentleman, as I understand it the school leaving age has been extended to 18 anyway, which was something the last Government did. Given that, I think that if we change the culture in our country, schools will encourage their pupils to take vocational education over university. As I say, we need to change the culture and emphasise to pupils that the vocational qualifications that they will be encouraged to consider will be as prestigious as taking university degrees. On that basis, we should not forget that in this Parliament the Government are setting up 24 university technical colleges—in essence, pre-apprentice schools—and I am incredibly proud that Harlow is getting one, which will open next year. However, we must not settle; we should be aiming to set up at least a hundred such colleges.

We should also be encouraging employers to take on more apprentices. One major hurdle that employers face is the lack of basic literacy and numeracy skills among young people, and we must look at that issue. Recent figures show that 17% of 16 to 19- year-olds are functionally illiterate and that 22% of them are innumerate. It is essential that apprenticeships place a greater emphasis on these basic skills, so that young people are ready to join the work force.

As a country we must create the right climate to encourage businesses to hire apprentices. We have made good progress with this, creating the apprenticeship grant for employers, which gives employers who employ fewer than 1,000 people a grant worth £1,500. It is currently available to employers until 31 December 2013. We will know that the grant is successful if it boosts the uptake of apprenticeship programmes. A new charity called Access is encouraging young people, offering 10,000 youngsters work experience programmes. We need to look at and support such schemes.

Subsidising businesses to take on apprentices works. Essex county council has a groundbreaking apprentice scheme and its employability and skills unit saw apprenticeship starts increase by 87% in 2011, compared with a national average of 21%. The council provides a wage subsidy of up to 70% for businesses taking on new or additional apprentices. If possible, I would like that to be replicated across the country. I look forward to the successes in Essex, led by Councillor Ray Gooding.

I also welcome the idea of a skills tax credit, which would give employers a stronger incentive to hire an apprentice and would create a stronger relationship between the employer and the apprentice. That was recommended in the Richard review of apprenticeships last November. I urge the Government to consider it.

Parliament should lead the way, with clear apprenticeship career paths in Departments. The Minister knows, because I have spoken to him about this before, that I believe that all Departments should replicate the Department for Work and Pensions’ new model procurement contract, which encourages, but does not compel, their contractors to hire apprentices as at least 5% of the work force. That has resulted in the employment of nearly 2,000 extra apprentices who deliver goods and services to the DWP. It is revenue-neutral and should be extended across Whitehall.

As well as changes to incentivise employers to take on apprentices, there should be changes to encourage disadvantaged young people to participate in vocational education. There are currently 900,000 people aged 16 to 24 in England not in education, employment or training. This figure has increased by nearly 50% over the past 10 years and accounts for 14.5% of all young people in England.

We know that 90% of young people who complete their apprenticeship go on to further employment, but some obstacles actively discourage young people from vocational education, particularly if they are from disadvantaged backgrounds. For example, young people at further education colleges are not entitled to free school meals, even if they meet the criteria for them, whereas their peers at sixth form do receive them. The civil servants have said to Ministers that it is too expensive and that schools do not get direct funding for it, even though they are required to provide it by law. The Association of Colleges estimates the cost of extending the right to free meals to college students at around £38 million. I believe that this money can be found through efficiencies. If we are to support vocational education, we cannot say to students who attend FE colleges, which are primarily focused on vocational education, that they are not allowed to have a free school meal even if they qualify for one. That injustice cannot continue.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. He probably recognises, as I do, that FE colleges take a higher proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds than sixth forms in schools and that they are also a large provider of education to young people aged 16 to 18.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, with whom I am pleased to have worked on this issue. We have only one sixth-form school in Harlow and the rest of the children go to a sixth-form college, where disadvantaged students are denied free school meals. That situation is untenable.

The Association of Colleges found that 79% of colleges thought that free school meals for 16 to 18-year-olds would encourage them to stay on in education. The principal of my local college says, “If I can get them through the door and we can give them a good meal, I know that I can turn their lives around.”

I would like to follow the lead of Essex council, which has an apprenticeship scheme that primarily helps disadvantaged young people, particularly single mothers. I was pleased that the Government replaced the education maintenance allowance with a bursary for 16 to 19-year-olds. That is good news, as it provides targeted support for those who need it most, but it is important that the Minister assesses what impact it is having and whether it is encouraging participation. The terms of the bursary must also be looked at. It should not operate in a similar way to the House of Lords, where you get paid just for turning up, but should reward students for their hard work, for example, if they meet or exceed their academic targets. It is right that we reward hard work, and doing so would proactively reward those who are in the most need and who are doing the right thing.

At the beginning of my speech, I said that improving apprenticeships is not just about economic efficiency, but is a necessary consideration. In 2012, youth unemployment cost the Treasury £4.8 billion. That is more than the total budget for 16 to 19-year-olds in England. According to a study by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations and the University of Bristol, the net present value of the cost to the Treasury, even looking only a decade ahead, is approximately £28 billion. So it is essential that in these tough economic times we take action quickly. But we must not forget that this is about social justice. Young people are our best defence against poverty. If we give them opportunities, skills and training, we get them off the street, give them stability and a real chance of a job in the future. The Government, in many ways, are taking the right decisions, but we must go further and faster. We need a conveyor belt of apprentices changing the culture, changing our schools, and changing how vocational education is perceived.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I will take your direction about this debate, in the knowledge that education is devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on securing the debate, which, in the current economic climate for young people, is very welcome. The subject is dear to my heart. I have been working with companies locally in Inverclyde and encouraging them to start thinking about increasing apprenticeships and to reach out to young people in our community, in the knowledge that apprenticeships—perhaps, the original “earn as you learn”—include a commitment to vocational and further education.

For too long, we have not paid enough attention to the 50% of our young people who do not go on to higher education. Those young people have suffered, and our economy has suffered. The central question is how to reform an education system, so that it equips young people with the skills and knowledge that they need to play their part, both as active citizens and as future business leaders and entrepreneurs.

It is not that our education system in Scotland is without problems and does not require improvements. Let me highlight some steps implemented to address some of the points that I have just raised, regarding active citizens, future business leaders and entrepreneurs. There is partnership between the schools and colleges, but unfortunately, as we have seen in Scotland, our colleges are under threat, as is our vocational education, because of the Scottish National party Government’s commitment not to charge fees for university places.

Order. I had a word with the hon. Gentleman before he spoke. Inverclyde is, of course, in Scotland, and this is a devolved matter. The debate is on future of vocational education in England and therefore he must address all his remarks to that question. He may not divert into the Scottish national Government or any other matter to do with Scotland. He must talk about vocational education in England.

Thank you, Mr Gray. I will take that direction.

Of course, the curriculum had to change to reflect what business was advising us about problems with employing school leavers. I have spoken to my local businesses and the chambers of commerce about what they required when hiring young people leaving school. The reply was always the same, and perhaps it is the same across the country. They said that they receive young people into the employment world, unready and lacking in the skills to contribute immediately to their business from day one.

Businesses need employees who can apply initiative and solve problems and innovate with limited supervision. There was, more than often, no prepared equation that could be applied to projects. Young people were looking for an equation to populate to get an answer for business. We had to change that and apply a process that would stimulate innovation and initiative when learning.

Business leaders and the entrepreneurs of the future have to be identified. In my constituency, we have pioneered an association with business employers and school leavers based on “The Apprentice”. With numerous employers, we have put in place a six-month programme called “The Recruit”, which provides vocational qualifications and involves tasks set by employers, who evaluate participants for potential hires at the end of the course; it is the longest interview a young person will have. The programme continues to be supported by many local employers, and it has been replicated by many local authorities. It has been a great success, and it regularly secures many jobs for school leavers who want to earn while they continue to learn. The course identifies and develops leaders and those with entrepreneurial abilities.

Our schools also link up with those in the third year of secondary school, offering basic skills in traditional trades that go towards an apprenticeship. The need for apprenticeships has never been greater. Too many young lives are being wasted on the dole queues. Long-term unemployed young people are the most vulnerable, with many trapped in a vicious cycle of joblessness, anxiety and depression. We desperately need to get our young people into training and apprenticeships. The 50% of our young people who do not go to university need every chance to improve their skills and to get good jobs.

I agree with the vast majority of the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and we certainly need to encourage our young people. However, the research papers we received for the debate state that some schools now charge parents to send their children on work experience. Surely, that is wrong, and it will not help us target areas of deprivation or encourage young people whose parents cannot afford to pay for them to go on work experience.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about charging for work experience. I represent an area whose population is not over-wealthy, and people would find it extremely difficult to pay for work experience. We are therefore fortunate that many employers offer work experience free of charge.

We need a highly skilled, highly educated work force to meet the challenges of tomorrow and to compete with other advanced nations. The economy needs value-added skills to compete with the economies of Brazil, India, China and other emerging nations. Apprenticeships are a valuable way to give young people skills, training and jobs. They also offer on-the-job learning opportunities and, of course, further education. They enable young people not only to learn about their chosen trade or profession, but to do so on the spot. They also enable them to talk to colleagues who are already skilled and experienced. Apprenticeships and vocational education can offer so much, and there is no reason why they should not be expanded to cover a wide variety of jobs and professions. If that is to happen, however, we need to engage more of Britain’s companies and to bring them on board.

We can plan for apprenticeships. Any company wanting to provide goods or services to the public should be required to have an apprenticeship scheme before it can win a contract. Labour’s jobs-for-contracts scheme would increase the number of apprenticeships by thousands and give immediate help to many of the 1 million unemployed under-25s. That simple idea—creating apprenticeship places through public procurement—would provide immediate help with alleviating youth unemployment and would strengthen the vocational sector. It works: the Labour council in Inverclyde has been using it for many years, and the number of those in the NEET category in Inverclyde stood at seven last year—not 7%, but seven pupils.

Today, Britain risks losing the global skills race. We need to be as strong as Germany and Switzerland on vocational education, and as competitive as Singapore and Japan on maths. Britain’s future national competitiveness is at stake and so is our young people’s future. We need to engage employers in designing high-quality apprenticeships, giving them a greater say in spending the £1 billion of funding available to target apprenticeships at our young people.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on securing the debate. His involvement with and commitment to vocational education has been long and passionate, and I share that commitment.

Tomorrow is vocational qualification day. I declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party group on further education, skills and lifelong learning. I therefore take this issue very seriously, and I have a profound commitment to it. There are many reasons why I passionately support vocational education, FE colleges and, indeed, the whole sector, but the most important is that the conversion rates from apprenticeships to jobs run at about 90%. At my local FE college, Sussex Downs, which is outstanding and has had a tremendous track record over the past few years under the leadership of its principal, Melanie Hunt, the apprenticeship conversion rate is an astonishing 92%.

A number of people who have left university with degrees and who are, sadly, still struggling to secure employment come to see me in my constituency, and I know that the same happens to other Members of Parliament. I sometimes have to resist the urge to say that if they had gone down the vocational route they would not have the student debt that so many people are, sadly, lumbered with nowadays and they would almost certainly be in employment.

On vocational education, the FE sector plays an absolutely pivotal role. There are several reasons for that. One is that the better FE and vocational colleges develop close relationships with local employers, local alternative training providers and the local DWP—the Jobcentre Plus. In Eastbourne, Sussex Downs college, where I will attend an apprenticeship event this evening before returning to Westminster tonight, is pursuing yet another initiative in a particular area of employment—in this case, retail. The college has spent a lot of time over the past year or two developing and deepening its relationships with different employer sectors and with Jobcentre Plus. A good FE sector wants to listen to employers; it talks to businesses and to the private and public sectors to try to understand their needs, so that it can train people in the vocational qualifications that fit the jobs—in other words, so that it can help people to be job ready.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) has admirably championed apprenticeships since his election in 2010. I totally support—I have said this before, and I will say it again—his desire for a royal college for apprenticeships. That is a superb idea; it is exactly the kind of thing that would raise the status of apprenticeships. Perhaps we can discuss it afterwards to see how we can push it forward, because it would make a real difference.

On apprenticeship initiatives, I pay tribute to the Minister, the Government and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, who is probably the most passionate advocate of FE and vocational education we have ever had as a Secretary of State. I spoke to him about the issue in the main Chamber only yesterday, and he reminded me—not that he needed to—of just how important he feels vocational education is in the FE sector. He also reminded me of how important it is that colleagues who feel strongly about this issue continue to lobby the Treasury, so that it does not remove too much money from the Department.

On apprenticeships in Eastbourne, I was one of the first MPs, along with the local FE sector, to work on the 100 apprenticeships in 100 days initiative. It was essential that I developed a close relationship with my local FE college, Sussex Downs. The work, which involved us and a number of other partners, was very successful, and we achieved 181 apprentices in 100 days. More importantly, it allowed me and the FE college to open a really strong dialogue with many local employers in the private and public sectors. The success of that has been astonishing. The latest figures from the Library show that Eastbourne has recruited more than 2,100 new apprentices since the general election—more than in the previous 10 years—which shows than when things are done properly the result is tremendous success.

I want to focus on something that came out of that: it brought home to me how deskilled schools have become about pushing apprenticeships. I work closely with local secondary school heads, and they were the first to admit that because for so long—particularly under the previous Government, but, to be fair, for at least 20 years—there was a drive almost to push people into degrees, teachers had become deskilled in talking about apprenticeships and did not know anything about them. The system in the Department for Education and the school sector provides no advantages in school league tables to push people towards becoming apprentices. There are, however, advantages to A-levels and sending students to university: doing so gets more money. If I were a proactive head who wanted to educate my students towards the tremendous range of apprenticeship opportunities—let us say that I quintupled the number of people becoming apprentices—I would not get a single extra penny from the Department for Education.

How then does it help to bring careers guidance into schools, so that there is a producer interest telling young people, even with the rising participation age, that the best thing for them to do is stay on at school, rather than pursuing vocational and other options?

I note that the hon. Gentleman made a similar intervention earlier, and he has a strong point: I do not see how that can help. However, that is not to say that careers services should not be in schools; the question cannot be beyond the wit of man within the DFE, because I think the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills would be keen for the careers service to be extended into FE. I do not think the solution is to stop careers guidance going into schools. I think that it is to do with the regulations and expanding the remit of careers services and the roles or opportunities that they need to talk to students about. The hon. Gentleman made a fair point.

There is a difficulty, because the issue is not one for BIS. I have spoken frequently with the Secretary of State, and several times with my hon. Friend the Minister; and it is clear to me that BIS is, considering the austerity programme, investing more, has greater commitment and is determined to continue the extension and improvement of apprenticeships and investment in FE. I think that we have now come to the tipping point with the vocational sector and FE, and the relationship with the Labour party and the Association of Colleges; there is now a profound understanding that because of the circumstances this may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move apprenticeships and vocational education up the scale, as in Germany. I am not sure that the opportunity will come again. I urge the Minister to do whatever it takes—working in partnership or working assertively with the DFE—to persuade the Secretary of State for Education to sit down with him and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and work on a productive, positive way forward, in which the DFE takes on board its crucial role in pushing vocational education and recognising and appreciating that there is an opportunity to transform its status, as in countries such as Germany.

The hon. Gentleman makes a clear point about the difficulty that schools and colleges face because of confused and contradictory messages. He was right to praise the messages that BIS is giving out, including those from the Skills Minister. Those are often contradicted in some of what is measured in schools, and in schools’ lack of capacity to take forward the careers education, information, advice and guidance that has been mentioned.

I agree with the direction of travel of those remarks. I emphasise that the problem is an old one. It has been around for 25 to 30 years, so I understand that it cannot be laid solely at the door of the current Secretary of State for Education. It has a history. However, I believe we have reached the point where there is enough collegiate agreement between all the political parties and across the whole economic spectrum to transform vocational education. Some good steps have been taken. Now is the time for us to make the leap. I urge the Minister to continue firmly in the direction of travel that he and his colleagues have taken. For BIS and the Department for Education, it is time to work together productively for a transformation that would be universally popular.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on securing this hugely important debate, on today of all days—coronation day, when we pay tribute to our sovereign, Her Majesty the Queen. She worked in the family firm and learned her craft from a master monarch. She upskilled on the job, and now she is involved in her own training programme. Perhaps in future we may move vocational qualification day to coronation day, to give exactly the sort of royal imprimatur that the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) spoke so eloquently about.

My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe was a long-serving principal of a sixth form college and is better placed than many of us to comment on the challenges that we face in creating an outstanding vocational education system. He set out the issues with authority and passion, and I pay tribute to his work at the Humber Skills Commission. Amazingly, he did all that while restricted by the anaconda of the omertà of the Whips Office, the perennial purdah that he suffers. Yet he still pursues his case with passion and authority. Furthermore, like me he represents an area that is on the front line of the Government’s austerity assault. One hopes that he has benefited from the recent changes in the climate change levy, but the truth is that for cities such as Stoke-on-Trent and places such as Scunthorpe, at the sharp end of the historic process of deindustrialisation, the profound brilliance of our local craftsmanship and artisanal skills has not insulated us from some challenging economic conditions. We can have brilliant craftsmanship while the situation for local skill levels is particularly challenging.

Now is not the time for a debate on the Government’s disastrous economic policies and the damage they have done to the demand side of the equation. We are gathered here today because we know that the supply side of the employment debate matters too: educational attainment and skills capacity are a vital component of rebalancing our economy to a more sustainable model. That much should be abundantly clear to all. Yet it should also be clear, as hon. Members of all parties have agreed, that we are nowhere near where we need to be on skills. Indeed, our weakness was illustrated in a recent global survey of over 1,300 chief executives by PricewaterhouseCoopers. That report revealed that UK business leaders are the most concerned in the whole of western Europe about the availability of key skills. Indeed, they rated it as the greatest threat to their businesses’ growth and three quarters of them said, rightly, that creating a highly skilled work force should be the highest priority for Government in the year ahead.

Sadly, however, there is still some complacency in Government, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) pointed out so brilliantly, is profoundly damaging to our international competitiveness, because we are, as the Government like to tell us, in a “global race”. How can we succeed in that race when we languish 21st out of all OECD countries in intermediate technical skills and while 31% of high-tech manufacturing firms have been forced to import labour from outside the UK because of a skills shortage? In this very Chamber, we recently had an excellent debate on engineering and the threat to parts of the national security supply chain because of the lack of UK-only trained engineers, particularly female engineers, as some hon. Members have suggested.

The Government, as the latest edition of The Economist eloquently puts it, are racing with their “shoelaces tied together”. That is why this debate is so important. It is absolutely clear to the Labour party that, if we are to build what we want to see—a one nation economy that can compete in a globalised economy while raising living standards right across the regions and nations of the United Kingdom—we simply must have the best skilled work force in the world. The cornerstone to delivering that must, now and in the future, be a relentless focus on driving up the standards of our vocational and technical education system.

I think it is fair to say that, as many hon. Members have noted, not least the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), successive Governments, including the last Labour Government, have not done enough to help the 50% of young people who do not want to pursue the academic route at 16 or 18. As he suggested, we are at a moment of agreement across the parties on the need to rebalance the debate, but I introduce a note of caution. We still want young working-class kids from Stoke-on-Trent, Scunthorpe, Eastbourne and Inverclyde to be able to go to university, and we should not be in the business of precluding those avenues. Although we can rebalance the debate, and although we all want to see growth in the respect given to vocational education and apprenticeships, we must not go down the avenue of suggesting that young working-class kids should not go to university.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, but does he agree that what we are seeking is parity of both respect and esteem?

I am delighted to agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right. What we are interested in is a cast-iron commitment to academic and vocational parity, because although our focus in government on raising school standards and academic rigour, and on expanding our outstanding, world-beating higher education sector, left the education system in far better shape than we inherited, as my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe said, we could have done more on vocational education. That is why the Labour party has placed vocational education not just at the heart of our education agenda but at the heart of our offer for the country in 2015, and it is why the leader of the Labour party made his call for focus on that forgotten 50% the heart of his recent party conference speech.

We disagree on the way the Government have pursued vocational education, however. Since they came to power, the Government have undermined careers guidance, which is a big issue for vocational routes. The recent report on that by the Select Committee on Education was absolutely damning. The Government have scrapped work experience and downgraded successful vocational qualifications such as the engineering diploma.

The Government have also made some bad mistakes on apprentices. When they came into power, they simply moved many of those on Train to Gain to apprenticeships. They were more interested in quantity than quality. We would like to think that there has been some rowing back on that recently, and we welcome the Richard review and all the hard work that the Minister is doing to try to enlighten the Secretary of State for Education on that, and we fully support him.

The Minister may now have persuaded his colleagues to hurry out their own version of a tech bacc, yet the difference between the Government’s technical baccalaureate and the Labour party’s original ur-version is that theirs is a performance measure whereas our ambition is for it to be a qualification that we want people to achieve. If some people are going to achieve it, other people are going to fail. If we want quality, it means some will succeed and some will not succeed. We want differentiation on the quality achieved.

As part of that, we need to raise the profile and status of vocational education to create a dual-track system that, as the hon. Member for Eastbourne suggested, genuinely gives no preference to either route. On vocational standards, that means having a clear line of sight both to work and to advanced, further or higher education, which means creating flexible and permeable pathways as a matter of importance. After all, young people are rightly wary of narrowing their options, and the whole ethos of a baccalaureate is to have a sense of broadness. Many see the option of gaining a degree or a gold-standard vocational qualification as part of their natural progression, irrespective of the route they choose at 18.

Furthermore, creating a genuine dual-track system also relies heavily on a deep-seated, collaborative ethos between institutions in delivering education and training. The countries that have enjoyed success in raising standards, such as Austria, Finland and Germany, all benefit from a system that has not only great career guidance but clearly defined roles for key stakeholders, with a great amount of time divested to building and maintaining institutional relationships.

If there is another criticism of the Government’s education policy, it is whether we are seeing the right degree of collaboration between atomistic, competitive schools, which are raising standards in certain situations but are not necessarily providing the kind of collaborative ethos that a local skills economy might need. That is some way from the institutional culture that the Government seem intent on inculcating with their slightly high-handed approach to the expertise of teachers and professionals, the lack of business involvement in delivering training and their focus on competition as the only measure of improving performance. If we want a proper industrial strategy, as the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills keeps urging, we need smarter local and regional collaboration.

Indeed, we only have to look at the shambolic execution of the Government’s careers guidance policy for a textbook display of encouraging perverse institutional incentives. In a tough funding climate, it will be a brave and outstanding school that advises its pupils not to stay on. In a recent conference in Westminster, we saw a very good example of that: a leading academy school that is part of a leading chain said that it had brought in outside careers guidance, exactly as it should be doing, but that it told the person coming in to give the careers guidance that they were not allowed to advise pupils to go to the college up the road. With in-house careers guidance, there is a producer interest in keeping kids along an easily understandable gold-path academic route, as it were, of GCSEs, A-level and university, rather than thinking far more creatively, which requires trained professionals with knowledge of local situations.

Perhaps the biggest problem we face in delivering a vocational education system for the future is the perverse and pervasive disconnect between the education system and local labour markets. All too often, skills policy is isolated from industrial and economic policy. That is why Labour’s technical baccalaureate would directly involve businesses in accrediting the quality of courses, and it is also why our tech bacc, unlike the Government’s tech bacc, would have a work experience requirement. Businesses have told our taskforce, the Husbands review, that that is absolutely crucial, which is why we would ensure that all vocational teachers spend time every year with local businesses and industry to keep their skills and experience fresh.

Those three measures would bring to education and training institutions a clear and realistic understanding of local labour markets. Closing the gap between employers and educators is vital if we are to develop a dual-track approach.

Of course, raising educational standards in vocational training does not mean that we weaken our focus on core subjects and on improving rigour. In vocational or academic routes, there should be no false division between theoretical knowledge in practical subjects. There is an interesting discussion to be had on where the journey begins for opening up pathways at 14 or 16. What have we learnt from the university technical colleges on the 14-to-19 parameter, rather than up to 16? Was the Wolf report 100% correct in saying that people should continue with the same totality of focus up to 16?

Fundamental to the Labour party’s education policy is a clear commitment to teaching English and maths to 18, irrespective of route, because although many further education teachers do an outstanding job, often in challenging circumstances—we have heard about the differences in funding and free school meals—we need to raise teaching standards in FE colleges in English and maths. Of the 40% of pupils who do not get a level 2 qualification at 16, only 20% go on to acquire one at 19 through the FE system. That needs to change if we want to upskill our country. The Minister should once again take his cue from Labour’s policy review, which is open and available to him, and from our one nation skills commission’s interim report, and commit to requiring all FE teachers to have at least a level 2 qualification in English or maths.

There are other problems with our system of vocational education, training and skills. We have acute skills shortages in crucial sectors such as engineering, too many young people who lack employment skills, low levels of employer involvement and a lack of good-quality advice for navigating the transition to work. Labour supports the proposals on traineeships that the Government are beginning to carve out. There is also a dearth of high-quality apprenticeships and a damaging divide between vocational and academic pathways.

However, I remain deeply optimistic about our ability to deliver on creating the skilled work force that we need. If we have problems with the manner of delivery, it is heartening that we have an element of cross-party consensus on the issue. We have a vast supply of dedicated, skilled, quality teachers who are willing to work with us to raise standards. If we get the system right, we can reverse the long tale of poor skills in this country and deliver a work force that can compete with the world.

We agree with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills that there is no future in a zero-sum game of depressed wages and longer hours. That is the Conservative future outlined in the terrible book “Britannia Unchained”—I do not know whether the hon. Members for Harlow or for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) contributed a chapter—which depicted a grisly neo-liberal world in which the British are too lazy and too slow. I do not know whether that includes paternity leave; the Minister might be able to enlighten us later.

The solution to our competitive challenge is not a low-skill, low-wage economy or a divided education system—the only race that will win is the race to the bottom. Rather, we must and can compete on our own terms, which means using our competitive advantage in innovation to build a one nation economy based on high-level skills and dynamic, technologically sophisticated companies. That is what young people want, it is what businesses want and it is what the Labour party is committed to delivering. It starts with a dual-track education system and our rigorous technical baccalaureate.

On a point of order, Mr Gray. For the record, I did not contribute to the book mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

It is a great pleasure to serve yet again under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. It is a partnership that I hope will continue for a long time to come. This debate is extremely important and timely. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) for securing it today, the day before vocational qualifications day, which was set up to celebrate vocational qualifications in a similar way to results days for GCSEs and A-levels. It is part of the twin track discussed by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt).

The debate has been wide-ranging—it is typical to say so at the start of a winding-up speech, but it is also true—and important. Some valuable points have been made on both the detail and the big picture. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe began by discussing four areas of concern: vocational education at key stages 4 and 5, careers advice, apprenticeships and traineeships and adult skills and unemployment. I will try to answer all his questions in the time available.

The hon. Gentleman also set out a rather Panglossian view of the world in 2010, not mentioning that youth unemployment was rising even before the crisis and had reached 1 million. Thankfully, it is now falling, although it is still far too high. There were skills shortages at the same time, which says to me that the education system has not been producing the skills that businesses need. I was rather more encouraged by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central, who took that argument apart and made a passionate case for increased standards. He was willing to criticise the previous Labour Government, rightly, for not focusing enough on standards in vocational education.

To address a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), I sit in two Departments. In the Department for Education, the action taken to increase standards in vocational education came first. Since the Wolf report, commissioned in 2011, we have taken action in the 14-to-16 age group, and we have now finalised a consultation on improving the quality of qualifications for 16 to 19-year olds. The area was radically in need of reform, and radical reform is coming through.

The devotion to increasing standards in vocational education—which has cross-party support, including clear agreement that there was a significant problem in 2010—has been led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, with the strong support of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. All three major parties agree on the matter. I think that we can now all accept that a serious weakness needed to be addressed and that we are taking steps to address it.

I say to all involved in this debate that, given that we will the ends, we must also will the means. That involves clearly, carefully and in a spirit of high consultation going through the qualifications offered, funded and recognised and ensuring that we support high-quality, stretching, rigorous qualifications that are responsive to the needs of employers.

On the point about the engineering diploma, we must encourage the creation of stretching, high quality new qualifications that fit the needs of modern employers. We encourage their creation in areas needed by business, and that has begun in the engineering industry and across different economic sectors.

This has been a helpful debate on both detail, to which I will come, and the big picture. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central said, of the 40% who do not get a level 2 qualification in English and maths, only 20% get one by the age of 19. That situation cannot be allowed to continue. I have read the Labour plan to increase English and maths requirements for FE teachers. That is already happening; I will send him the details of what we have done to address the issue. That is hopefully another outbreak of consensus.

In setting out what we are doing to achieve those goals, I will answer the questions put. Satisfyingly, the questions put were already answered in the draft of my speech, which is always good news. Professor Wolf found in her report, commissioned in 2011, that as many as 350,000 students were being funded to study for qualifications that they could pass but that were too small or low-level to get them a job. We are changing the requirements for qualifications to be funded and recognised, but we are doing so alongside changing how we fund all education between the ages of 16 and 19.

From September, funding will be on a per-student, not a per-qualification, basis, removing the unintended and perverse incentive to offer more qualifications, rather than focusing on what individuals need. Pupils will be offered a study programme including either a substantial vocational or academic qualification or an extended programme of work experience.

I return to the point about work experience, which is part of the study programme. This will give schools, colleges and training providers the flexibility to offer the most challenging qualifications to students who want to excel, whether in a technical field, in practical, employment-based training such as an apprenticeship or in an academic field. The need to ensure that people have a choice to pursue technical or vocational education, academic education or a combination of the two is important, and the Government’s job is to provide excellent options in all of those fields. I was delighted that Her Majesty said in the Queen’s Speech that it should become typical for young people to go either to university or into an apprenticeship. Our job is to ensure that excellent options are available on both sides, and not to have a target that falsely pushes people one way or the other.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) argued that vocational education is social justice. The change in the funding system means that all students will be funded at the same base level, once the transitional protections are past. Instead of the average person who goes to an FE college being funded less than the average person who stays on at sixth form, because of the different amounts of funding awarded per qualification, everyone will be funded per pupil, on the same basis, with factors allowing for location, background and the higher cost of some qualifications.

The Minister is making a good point, but the plan is for 16 to 18-year-olds to be funded significantly less than students younger than that or than students who go on to higher education. There is an issue about the quantum, which I hope that the Government are examining.

I do not quite take the point on higher education, because students in higher education fund themselves through loans. I am pleased that through our introduction of loans and the progressive rules on repayment—only if people have a good job and earn £21,000—a record number of people are applying to university, and that also provides the hon. Gentleman with a response to an intervention that he made. To make the right comparison on how much we fund someone in an age group, we need to ensure that in the first instance the funding is equal across the different sectors and options, which is what the change will achieve.

I pay tribute in the strongest possible terms to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow on the parliamentary apprenticeship scheme, which he set up and champions. I support him for doing that, and now dozens of MPs and peers have apprentices. Knowing the impact that apprentices have on employers—they become much more passionate about apprentices when they have apprentices themselves—I am sure that the scheme will have an effect on MPs. Indeed, it was a great pleasure to take the parliamentary apprentices of all parties to No. 10 Downing street to meet the Prime Minister, and I enjoyed grinning with the apprentice of the hon. Member for Scunthorpe on the steps of No. 10.

An important point to make is about the participation age rising from 16 to 17—for those starting this year—and then to 18. The participation age will ensure and require that young people stay in education or training until, by 2015, they are 18, although not necessarily in school—it could be in college, in an apprenticeship, in employment with training or in voluntary work with part-time training. That is an important point because we do not want to close down the options available, but we want people to stay in education. An apprenticeship is a good way to deliver that.

Why are we making the reforms, which fall under the title of increasing rigour and responsiveness to the needs of individuals and of employers? What I call the motivating fact is the link between having youth unemployment that is far too high and skills shortages. To deal with that, it is important to ensure that the education system is more responsive and more rigorous and stretching.

How are we going to achieve that? I will go through some of the measures, four of which form the core goals that I think are necessary and the first of which is the introduction of traineeships. Many young people are highly motivated by the prospect of work, but are not yet ready or able to secure an apprenticeship or sustainable job. From this August, therefore, we are launching a high-quality traineeship programme within the study programme for 16 to 19-year-olds, to include work preparation, work experience, and English and maths, because English and maths are the No. 1 and No. 2 vocational skills. Other flexible training will be tailored to meet individual need.

The introduction of traineeships is positive, but my understanding is that they will be about six months in length. Will the Minister consider being flexible on how they are delivered, so that they could be delivered in a longitudinal way alongside other qualifications over a year, for example?

The plan is to introduce the traineeships this year and to have a full analysis of how they work over their first year of operation. I am willing to look at all questions, because the preparation for the traineeships has been highly evidence-based and consultative. Over the years, we have had many different programmes to help people who are not yet ready to take on a job, and some have been successful and some not. My Twitter account is full of descriptions of experiences of YTS—the youth training scheme—or the flexible new deal, for example, and all sorts of different Government schemes that have been in this space. We want to ensure that we learn where they have worked and where they have not.

The second big change is in apprenticeships, and I am delighted with the cross-party support for the Richard review. The number of apprenticeships has almost doubled since 2010 and, we found out last week, apprenticeship applications are up a third on the previous year. The new higher apprenticeships allow people to get into the law through an apprenticeship and to become a fully qualified solicitor, or, likewise, into the upper reaches of the worlds of engineering and manufacturing and even to become an accountant. People will get the same qualifications as those who go through university.

As a former apprentice, I understand the value of apprenticeships, but what are often described as apprenticeships by some Government Members are nine-week training courses. We have to protect the quality of apprenticeships.

Yes, and we have introduced a minimum period of a year for apprenticeships. We absolutely have to do more on quality, which is what the Richard review is all about. We have introduced UTCs—university technical colleges—which will introduce the very best technical education in conjunction with universities and employers. We are reforming qualifications and standards, because we cannot will the end—higher standards—without willing the means. When colleges fail on minimum standards, whether financially or educationally, the new FE commissioner will take a tough approach when looking at all the options for how to serve local students better.

Finally, on careers advice and guidance, we want better inspiration and motivation, character building and the opening of young people’s eyes to wider horizons, with mentoring so that everyone can reach their potential. The information is out there—the web is littered with it—but we need to ensure that young people find it, know what is relevant to them and can set and reach their goals. Ofsted is inspecting against the new duty to provide independent and impartial advice, so schools will be inspected for that. Crucially, the new destination data will show not only how many people go to university, but how many go into an apprenticeship or a job. The data will better hold schools to account for the outcomes of the education that they provide, not only on the exams and where they get in those league tables, but on where the students get to. I hope that that improves matters a lot.