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Young Apprenticeships

Volume 567: debated on Tuesday 3 September 2013

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for young apprenticeships for 14 to 16 year olds; and for connected purposes.

The Bill is about expanding educational opportunity, plugging the skills gap and giving 14 to 16-year-olds a credible, work-oriented vocational option. The 50% target for young people going to university introduced by the previous Labour Government was inevitably something of an arbitrary distraction, and I am relieved that the coalition discarded it. As the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee said, it led to Mickey Mouse courses at mediocre institutions.

University is only one piece of the educational jigsaw and it is not right for all youngsters. Some children are not inspired by academic study. Yes, they need basic numeracy and literacy, but we must ditch the snobbery that looks down on vocational alternatives to getting a degree. That lingering prejudice serves neither the economy nor youngsters looking to equip themselves for an increasingly competitive labour market. With the raising of the school-leaving age to 18, we risk compounding this mistake unless it is flexible enough to accommodate an early transition into work. Youngsters need wider options and the absence of choice is particularly stark for those from lower income households who have less financial support to fall back on.

The coalition Government have made huge strides in promoting the “tech bacc”, university technology colleges and apprenticeships, but we still lack a work-based alternative for 14 to 16-year-olds. However, that is precisely the age in state schools when truancy rates spike by 75%. It is at that age that the number of half-days missed by persistent truants doubles. It is the critical moment when increasing numbers of children become dislocated from school. We know why: research from the Department for Education in 2007 found that many youngsters became disaffected with school because they question its relevance, find it too conceptual rather than hands-on and find it demoralising persisting with academic learning if that is not where their talents lie. According to research by the Prince’s Trust, one in three youngsters leaving school with poor GCSEs believe that they will end up on benefits. That is a tragedy. Today, a report by the Centre for Social Justice highlights the acute underperformance of white 15-year-old boys from poorer backgrounds.

Why not offer those youngsters the option of a young apprenticeship between the ages of 14 and 16? As Sir Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools, argues:

“If a child at 14 has mastered basic literacy and numeracy, I would be very happy for that child to leave school and go into a combination of apprenticeship and further education training and a practical, hands-on, craft-based training that takes them through into a job.”

He continues:

“Does anybody seriously think these kids who are truanting at 13, 14 are going to stay in school in a purposeful, meaningful way through to 18? It just seems to me the triumph of ideological hope over reality.”

He is absolutely right.

Young apprenticeships were first introduced by Tony Blair’s Government back in 2004, to plug precisely the gap that I am talking about. They offered a two-year programme, combining English and maths with optional subjects such as engineering or construction, along with various others. Crucially, pupils spent two days each week in the workplace, gaining hands-on experience and gathering practical skills. That route rapidly became immensely popular, with the numbers rising from 1,000 pupils at the outset to 9,000 just three years later. Young apprenticeships went on to win praise from Ofsted, following reviews in 2007 and 2012. Ofsted noted the strong personal development of students, high attendance and positive feedback from employers.

In 2010, the Young People’s Learning Agency found that 78% of those in young apprenticeships achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, compared with the national average of 64%. Above all, and perhaps most interestingly, participants with lower levels of prior attainment appeared to gain most relative to peers outside the programme. Of the cohort evaluated, virtually all went into further education, training, full apprenticeships or a job. Just 1% became unemployed. The success of young apprenticeships also mirrors international experience. They are popular in Australia. In Switzerland, youngsters can spend two days a week in school and the rest in company training. Germany also has a dual system from 15, balancing time in the classroom with hands-on, workplace experience.

Here in the UK, young apprenticeships used to enjoy strong bipartisan political support, but in truth the last Government lost interest, and the shadow Chancellor, then Education Secretary, wound them down. Nevertheless, there remains substantial cross-party support for reviving young apprenticeships, both on the Government Benches and among many in the Labour party—those who really get the challenge of boosting social mobility. I am grateful for that cross-party support and in particular to the right hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) and for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who are backing this Bill today.

As well as giving wider opportunity to youngsters, particularly those from tougher backgrounds, there is a strong economic case for young apprenticeships, which is equally compelling. The growing proportion of people not in active employment being supported by those in work is economically unsustainable. We need to be promoting a wider range of routes into the workplace, including youngsters with the right skills. For all the soul searching about the emergence of an hourglass economy in Britain, too few recognise the opportunity to nurture the vocational route into well-paid jobs, which are increasingly in demand, as well as its value as an entrepreneurial stepping stone to setting up what can be a profitable business.

Labour said it wound down young apprenticeships because of cost, and it is true: they cost about £3,000 a student more than if they had been in school. At their peak in 2007-08, young apprenticeships cost just under £34 million. That might be because the scheme was never allowed to develop the economies of scale achieved by apprenticeships for those over 16, but in any case that cost is dwarfed by that of the failure to provide suitable educational options for teenagers. Research carried out for the Audit Commission found that each teenager between the age of 16 and 18 not in education, employment or training costs £56,000 over their lifetime, mainly through welfare benefits and crime.

Government Members already recognise, through the pupil premium, the additional price tag on schooling youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds. I for one have no problem saying that we should invest a bit more in ambitious youngsters—the grafters rather than the geeks, if you like—who want to get into work sooner, rather than keeping their heads buried in books. The educational foundation Edge argues that limiting choice for 14 to 16-year-olds is

“inherently unfair, and in a rapidly changing economic climate, it is not sensible either. Young people need to be able to take academic and vocational courses in varying combinations linked to their aims and interests.”

The Bill would revive young apprenticeships. It would amend the Education and Skills Act 2008 to enable us to provide young apprenticeships as an alternative to staying in full-time schooling until the age of 18. We could easily cover the costs involved by scrapping the Government Equalities Office, which, frankly, just churns out pointless regulation and political correctness. Let us make it abundantly clear that Government Members stand for an aspirational society and not for social engineering. Reviving young apprenticeships would promote genuine opportunities for youngsters and strengthen the skills base of our economy, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr Dominic Raab, Robert Halfon, Alan Johnson, Priti Patel, Mr Frank Field, Jackie Doyle-Price, Laura Sandys, Nadim Zahawi, Harriett Baldwin and Caroline Dinenage present the Bill.

Mr Dominic Raab accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 8 November, and to be printed (Bill 103).