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Volume 565: debated on Monday 24 June 2013

With youth apprenticeships down on last year and the demise of the professional careers service as most people recognise it, what are the Government doing to ensure that young people receive the correct advice on starting apprenticeships, and, in particular, the route to higher level qualifications that some apprenticeships can lead to?

The hon. Lady is quite right that we need to encourage all students to consider apprenticeships as a high quality alternative to the academic path. I commend the activity that Sunderland city council and Sunderland football club are under-taking to ensure that more young people in that great city consider apprenticeships as a viable role for the future. I should add that the recent diminution in the number of 16 to 19-year-olds taking apprenticeships was due significantly to the fact that we were reducing the number of low quality apprenticeships where the duration was shorter than a proper apprenticeship needs to be and the quality of tuition was less effective than a good apprenticeship needs to be, but there is still more to be done.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his Department’s success in raising the profile of apprenticeships and making them a genuinely attractive alternative to higher education? Will he join me in congratulating East Midlands Housing Group on its apprenticeships in my constituency, and on being an apprentice team of the year finalist this year?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the importance of construction and other sectors in helping to encourage more young people to consider apprenticeships. The Under-Secretary of State for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock)—who sadly cannot be with us, Mr Speaker, because he is enjoying paternity leave—has I think done more than any other Minister, apart possibly from his immediate predecessor, to put apprenticeships on the map and to work with industry to raise the esteem in which vocational training is held.

Does the Secretary of State realise that many of us who believe passionately in apprenticeships are concerned that the people instructing apprentices should be of the highest order? What is this love affair between him and people who are unqualified working with apprenticeships and in schools?

I absolutely agree that those working with apprentices need to have either the best qualifications or the best experience in the relevant sector, which is why we implemented the recommendations of Alison Wolf’s report. We have allowed lecturers in further education, who are qualified in that sector but were not previously able to work in schools, to work in schools. We will also implement the Richard review, which once more puts employers in control of assuring the quality of vocational qualifications, so that anyone who secures an apprenticeship can be confident that it will lead to a satisfying job.

With youth unemployment at the 1 million mark, one would have thought that Ministers would do all they could to get young people into training and jobs, so why have the Government overseen a 12% reduction in young apprenticeships in the past six months alone, alongside a £165 million departmental underspend? Where is the determination to fix this crisis? Rather than writing eight-page letters and trying to become the pen pal of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), should the Secretary of State not be focusing on some policy work?

Rather than writing eloquent questions and reading them out with the rounded vowels of a public school educated champion of vocational education, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman concentrate on what the Government have done. I also suggest that he refer back to the wonderful Westminster Hall debate, held with the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk, in which the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that under the previous Government vocational education was not good enough, that there were far too many low standard courses, and that the Wolf report and the Richard review have been the two best pieces of work on vocational and technical education undertaken in the past 25 years. If he looked back at what he said then, he would face a dilemma: does he eat the words he uttered in Westminster Hall, or does he acknowledge that the question he has just asked was nonsense from start to finish?