Skip to main content

Vocational Qualifications

Volume 576: debated on Wednesday 5 March 2014

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the publication of our reform plan for vocational qualifications, which will significantly simplify and streamline the adult skills system, alongside apprenticeship reforms.

This is national apprenticeship week, when we celebrate the onward march of apprenticeships, their rejuvenation and expansion. We want it to become the new norm for young people to have the choice of going either to university or into an apprenticeship. We have set out reforms to drive up the quality of apprenticeships and to introduce new apprenticeships in areas from space engineering to nursing. Today we set out plans to reform adult skills more broadly. They build on the foundations laid by our reforms to schools, the introduction of tech levels and Doug Richard’s work on the future of apprenticeships—I pay tribute to him for that work.

The vocational qualifications system had grown too complicated, bureaucratic and hard to understand. Even with the action taken so far, there are some 15,800 regulated qualifications in England, 11,000 of which are eligible for Government funding. By November, our reform plan will have removed more than 6,500 qualifications not valued by employers from Government funding, allowing nearly £200 million to be redirected towards more effective qualifications. The reforms will also: give employers greater ownership of qualification design and standards; attract funding only if the qualifications are valued by employers; and offer learners meaningful progress in employment or further learning. At the same time, Ofqual will review the way vocational qualifications are regulated.

We support vocational qualifications that help people into work, so we must focus support on those that employers value. As a result of these reforms, qualifications in subjects such as self-tanning, balloon artistry and instructing pole fitness will no longer attract Government funding. We will examine the current system to see whether more flexible approaches, such as payment by results, might work better, particularly when dealing with unemployed people returning to education.

The reforms will also make the qualifications system easier for learners and employers to understand. A new system will be developed to allow people to see what is available. Funded qualifications will need to set out their purposes clearly and in non-technical language, and new qualifications will need to demonstrate that they have business support. We will monitor their track record over time to ensure that they are delivering employment and progression, and we will support only those qualifications that actually deliver for learners.

High-quality apprenticeships and adult qualifications are vital to our long-term economic plan and allow all people the chance to reach their potential. I commend this statement to the House.

It is nice that we have the chance to have this exchange during national apprenticeship week. It allows me to say how proud the Opposition are of our country’s apprentices, of the National Apprenticeship Service and of national apprenticeship week, which we are grateful this Government have continued.

I am glad that the Minister is with us today to spell out how he plans to implement Nigel Whitehead’s excellent review, and I am grateful to Nigel Whitehead for briefing me on the plans yesterday. However, I have to be honest with the Minister and say that we are a little disappointed that today he has merely announced but a fraction of the change we need. Most Opposition Members are scratching our heads and asking ourselves, “Is that it?”

The Minister is presiding over a Department that is cutting skills spending by half a billion pounds over the next couple of years. We know that difficult decisions are needed, but that is why comprehensive reform should have been announced today, not just a bit of reform. We heard nothing about how to raise employer demand for apprenticeships, although 92% of firms in this country do not offer them. We heard not a word about how the Government plan to raise the quality of courses taught in further education or the quality of teachers.

The Minister instructed the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) to vote against Labour’s plans, which were debated in the Deregulation Bill Committee yesterday, to raise the quality of apprenticeships by 2020. The Secretary of State for Education has downgraded training requirements for further education teachers so that they no longer need English and maths even to a basic level. We have heard nothing today about licensing colleges as specialist centres of technical education.

I am not saying that the Minister is a road block to reform, but I am increasingly concerned that he is a straw in the wind, powerless to deliver the change that the skills system needs. His hon. Friends know that he likes a good plot in Parliament; I am worried that he has lost the plot in his Department.

When will we see plans to raise the quality standards for apprenticeships? When will we see plans to raise and support the quality of further education teaching? Where is the plan to use public procurement to raise apprenticeship numbers? Finally, given that the Minister has refused to tell me how big the head count cuts in the National Apprenticeship Service will be in the next year or two, will he tell the House this afternoon exactly how many people will go?

There is a big plank of consensus between us in the House. We, too, believe that good skills are crucial if families are to earn their way to a better standard of living and escape the cost of living crisis in which the Government have trapped them. Frankly, we needed a bigger plan from the Minister this afternoon.

Well, Mr Speaker, it all started well. The consensus on support for the growth of apprenticeships is welcome. I also welcome the support from the Opposition Front Bench on the moves we are driving through to increase the quality of apprenticeships. Unfortunately, after a reasonably good start, the right hon. Gentleman’s speech went a bit haywire. It is pity that he suggested nothing constructive or positive. Instead, he just sniped. I, too, pay tribute to Nigel Whitehead, who has put together an impressive report on which the reforms are based, but for the right hon. Gentleman to complain about English and maths when we are putting through one of the largest ever programmes to increase English and maths requirements in vocational learning is a bit of a surprise.

We are introducing elite colleges to ensure that when we build HS2 and new nuclear power stations, local people will have the training to get those jobs, but there was not a word of support for that. It is a pity to hear the sniping, but it is welcome that in national apprenticeship week there is support from both sides of the House for the big growth in apprenticeships. They have been a big coalition success, with the number of participants doubling, and they are critical to give young people the chance to succeed instead of being on the scrap heap where the Labour party left them.

I welcome today’s statement. Vocational qualifications need attention, and they needed to be sorted out. As chairman of the Select Committee on Education, I try to be dispassionate, but the truth is that under the last Government we had the diploma, a massive expansion of useless vocational qualifications and, even in the boom years, young people left on the dole. It does not have to be that way. Other countries in Europe show that getting vocational education right and improving careers advice and guidance—the Government have more work to do on that—means that young people will not be destined to a life on the dole, which was their fate too often under the last Government.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work. He said that we have more work to do, and I agree wholeheartedly. We have made improvements, but bringing together the worlds of education and employment is a long-term task involving a change of culture. I welcome the fact that, in figures published last week, the number of 16 to 18-year-olds not in education, employment or training hit a record low, but every NEET is one too many and we must do more.

I welcome some aspects of the Minister’s statement, especially engagement with employers. However, may I tell him, on this first day of Lent, that he should resolve over the next 40 days to do something every day to engage the staff, the principals and the whole community of the further education sector? He will not deliver improvements in vocational qualifications unless he has the FE sector on his side, and the recent cuts to post-18 education are not helping at all.

The FE system is an amazing asset to this country in driving up quality and ensuring that we tackle low quality. It is important to highlight the fact that it does a brilliant job of turning around lives. That is why we are introducing new FE colleges for the first time in two decades. I am a wholehearted supporter of the FE system and entirely agree about its importance. The hon. Gentleman, like the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), complains about the fact that we live in tight financial times and must take uncomfortable decisions, but we all know why that happened.

I congratulate the Minister on his statement, with which I agree wholeheartedly. I also welcome his saying, at a conference I attended a couple of days ago, that we will introduce proper careers advice in schools. Careers advice has been desperately needed over the past few years and was destroyed by Labour Members when they were in control. I am delighted that we are finally offering our young people real careers advice about the apprenticeships that are now available instead of university.

That is some careers advice for me. Careers advice is yet another Labour mess that we are having to clear up. It is vital that careers advice gives people inspiration as well as information. We will shortly introduce new statutory guidance to strengthen the requirements on schools to deliver on that, and I will keep a close eye on how well that progresses.

I share the concern about the quality of careers advice at the moment. Kids need their eyes and minds to be open to the options that are ahead. The Government’s current approach of leaving it all to schools is not providing the best advice for children or best value for taxpayers’ money because it is so dissipated. Will the Minister seriously look again at this? If kids do not know about the options, it does not matter how great they are, because they will not grasp and take them.

The best people to give careers advice are those who are enthusiastic about the careers that they themselves are in, and that is the direction we are taking. Although schools obviously play a vital part, we have also introduced the National Careers Service, which was not there for 13 years under Labour. This is a partnership between Government, schools and companies that can show young people the careers that are available.

I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s statement. I would like to assure the House that in Erewash this week I am busy meeting a number of apprentices from a range of sectors to mark national apprenticeship week. Does he agree that the two key points are, first, to remind employers of the support available and encourage them to appreciate the value of apprenticeships, and secondly, to tell young people, as I frequently do, “Get smart—get an apprenticeship”?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work. I would say to all Members of the House that having an apprentice not only gives somebody a chance but is very motivating for oneself, as I have found out. I not only recommend all Members to take on an apprentice but commend the House of Commons for having started an apprenticeship scheme. I have met some of those apprentices, and very impressive they are too.

I am a member of the Deregulation Bill Committee, where I voted for and spoke strongly in favour of Labour’s excellent amendments and was disappointed when they were not successful. One concern I expressed was about the fear that the switch in funding for vocational training from further education colleges to employers will weaken provision, as cash-strapped companies with cash-flow problems will not necessarily spend the money on vocational training. What does the Minister say to that?

In the reforms, the money will have to be spent on apprenticeship training. It is vital that we ensure that the training delivered is that which employers need, so it needs to be not only rigorous, but responsive. This country has had not just a skills shortage, but the wrong training, as demonstrated by some of the qualifications we have today announced we will be no longer funding. We have to support the training that employers need and bring together education and employment, so that young people learn skills that will help them get a job and get on in that job.

Am I right in thinking that the Leitch review envisaged 250,000 apprenticeship starts a year by 2020 and that we now intend to ensure that the figure will be at least 360,000 a year? It is good news that employers are creating new apprenticeships, but is it not also important to ensure that 15 and 16-year-olds in school are aware of the range and quality of the apprenticeship opportunities open to them?

That last point is very important, but I can go one better: in the past year, more than 500,000 people started an apprenticeship. We made a commitment in our manifesto to increase the number by tens of thousands and we have more than delivered on that target. I pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who oversaw the start of this expansion. We also have to drive up the quality of the apprenticeships.

I also welcome the Minister’s statement and the fact that employers will now have a greater input into, and have a better partnership role in, apprenticeships. Does the Minister agree that we cannot get complacent? There are still a lot of people out there who want to get into apprenticeships, and relationships with FE colleges must be strengthened even further.

I agree. A culture change is needed across this country so that when young people leave school they will look to go either to university or into an apprenticeship. Our job is not to make the mistake of forcing people one way or the other—sometimes against their wishes, as has happened before—but instead to make sure that there are two high-quality options available and that people can choose what suits them.

I very much welcome today’s statement. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Cornwall apprenticeship service, which has created 1,000 new apprenticeships in a year? That, with his Department’s support, is enabling micro-businesses such as Feritech in Penryn to take on apprentices.

I pay tribute to the Cornwall apprenticeship service. In fact, I have visited Cornwall college twice as skills Minister and have seen the work it is doing, particularly on building links with employers so that the training it provides is what they need. I pay tribute to its work.

I have a positive suggestion for the Minister, since he has asked for one. Why do the Government not introduce a compulsory jobs guarantee for every under 25-year-old? Labour has done something similar in Wales and not only have thousands of young people got into jobs, but 80% of them have got into jobs with private sector employers and full-time employment. That is a positive suggestion, isn’t it? Just say yes.

When I last visited Cornwall college, I was with the hon. Gentleman. The Welsh Government have obviously done better than the previous national Labour Government did, because under their scheme—I have heard about this and seen the evidence—more than 90% of the jobs were unsustainable jobs in the public sector. Our employer-led approach is leading to a fall in youth unemployment and, as I have said, record low NEETs among those aged 16 to 18. This is about real, sustainable jobs and more security for people’s incomes.

Apprenticeships have been a major success of the coalition Government, with many thousands of businesses taking on an apprentice for the very first time, but many thousands of businesses have not. Has the Minister made an assessment of what barriers remain for those businesses and what further action the Government can take to make a success story even better?

I am always vigilant to making it easier for employers to take on apprentices. That is a very important part of the programme. We have introduced a simple three-step process for employers to take on an apprentice. It appears to be working, because more than half of apprentices are in small and medium-sized enterprises. I am absolutely sure that there is more that we can do to simplify the process and make it as easy as possible.

As we celebrate national apprenticeship week in its seventh year, will the Minister steal Labour’s plans to make companies employ apprentices as part of the procurement process, which is another positive suggestion?

Crossrail, which is the biggest construction project in Europe and is happening under this Government, has a rule on the number of apprentices involved in procurement. That has had a very positive impact and we are building the FE college that will ensure that we provide such apprenticeships for HS2 as well.

I was disappointed by the curmudgeonly approach of the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, to the great success of apprenticeships under this Government. In my constituency of Gloucester, the impact of the increased funding for apprenticeships means that there are now more than three times the number of apprentice starts every year than there were in 2009, and youth unemployment fell by 45% last year alone. When the hon. Gentleman said that he was scratching his head, I was not surprised, because when the shadow Chancellor came to Gloucester he said that he was concerned about the level of youth unemployment. There is always more to do, but it is 20% lower than it was under Labour’s watch. Today, can we celebrate—

I had more than a dollop when I visited Gloucester with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). The fact that youth unemployment has fallen by 20% since he was rightly elected is in no small part thanks to the enormous hard work he does with his magnificent jobs fairs and apprenticeships fairs, and what he does to promote apprentices to employers, which I have seen first hand.

For the greater part of my life, apprenticeships were greatly valued, with two to three years of craft training, indentures and a job at the end of them. One in five of Tory apprenticeship scheme entrants say that their period lasts for less than six months and they have no training at all. Has not an increase in the number of apprenticeships been bought at the cost of a degradation in their status and value?

The hon. Gentleman makes a point that needs to be addressed. The system we inherited had a lot of short-term apprenticeships, but we have introduced a minimum of a year for apprenticeships and are driving up the quality. I think those measures have cross-party support, but it is certainly true that we have had to improve on the 2010 apprenticeship scheme.

I welcome the Minister’s statement. Will he join me in congratulating Ann Webb, head of Eaton Bank academy in my constituency, on holding an apprenticeship event last Friday, which I was pleased to attend, that directly promoted to students opportunities for, and the importance of, apprenticeships? Will he encourage other schools to follow that innovative lead?

I certainly commend such action to promote apprenticeships as an option, alongside higher education, for young people. It is undoubtedly true that, while university is right for some people, it is not right for everybody. Giving people options that can also lead them to further higher study is valuable. In the law, for example, someone can become a fully qualified solicitor through an apprenticeship that is equivalent to post-degree level study. It is very important that such options are made available to young people.

I was pleased to hear that the Minister has signed up to the youth friendly employer badge run by Youth Employment UK, a charity based in my constituency that works nationwide. Corby is a place where there is excellence. Lots of people are being placed in apprenticeships through Tresham Evolve and the Northamptonshire Industrial Training Association Ltd. Will the Minister look at the quarterly funding arrangements, which have at times created uncertainty in the business planning of those organisations placing people in apprenticeships?

The hon. Gentleman will probably not be surprised to hear that I have made many visits to Corby and learned a lot during them, including about the funding arrangements. It is necessary to have arrangements that ensure that the funding gets to those people who are expanding their apprenticeship programme. That means that it has to be allocated in-year. I know that causes discomfort to some of the providers and I always keep an eye on the situation to make sure it does not get out of hand.

It is welcome news that 43% of employers are more likely to offer an apprenticeship than two years ago. However, too many busy businesses are still not aware of the fantastic opportunities and benefits of the apprenticeship scheme. Will the Government take forward plans to promote apprentices through the annual business rates mailer that we already pay for?

That is a really important point. Big businesses that have a graduate recruitment round are increasingly moving to having a graduate recruitment system alongside an apprenticeship recruitment system. On Monday, I was at the BBC, which is doubling its apprenticeship intake, and it announced the goal of an apprenticeship intake of the same size as its university intake. The civil service is doing the same in moving towards having both, and all large companies should look at whether that is the right option for them.

It is good to hear the Minister speak about quality in FE. My experience is that most middle-class parents would still prefer their children to go on to A-level and university, with vocational options left for everybody else. Until the issue of quality is addressed, parents will guide their children in that way. How will downgrading training, so that teachers no longer need a teaching qualification, help?

We are upgrading training to make sure that people who have skills in the workplace can easily transfer them into FE colleges. Making training relevant to what now goes on is a very important part of making sure that provision is high quality. I agree with the hon. Lady that tackling low-quality provision is very important in showing parents that the existing provision for their children is high quality. That important thrust is behind why we are tackling low-quality provision, as well as celebrating high-quality provision where it exists.

This morning in Colchester, I launched a campaign for local businesses to recruit 100 apprentices in 100 days. The campaign is supported by the Colchester Institute, the Colchester Daily Gazette and the National Apprenticeship Service in the part of the country that the Minister and I represent. Will he welcome this Colchester success story, which follows a fall of more than 600 in the town’s unemployment figures from January 2013 to January 2014?

Yes, I absolutely will. I wish the hon. Gentleman luck in reaching 100 apprentices in 100 days, and I suggest that he take on an apprentice himself.

Small and micro-businesses in Oldham have told me that they find the process for recruiting apprentices cumbersome and bureaucratic. Given that nearly half the work force are employed in small businesses, what more can we do to engage businesses and make the process to recruit apprentices much simpler?

One thing that the hon. Lady could do to make the process simpler is to support the measures in the Deregulation Bill that is going through the House. We are taking a whole series of measures, but if she has specific examples of bureaucracy getting in the way, I would be very keen to look at them.

In each of the past two years, more than 1,000 people in Worcester have started an apprenticeship, more than doubling the uptake since the end of the previous Labour Government. I am very glad that that is happening, along with an increase in the quality of apprenticeships. With new research from the Association of Accounting Technicians showing that each apprenticeship in Worcester adds £2,229 to the local economy, does the Minister agree that more businesses in our area should take on apprentices?

Yes, I agree. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work to bring exactly that benefit to the attention of employers in Worcester and across the country.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the campaign from some quarters to push for a focus on STEAM rather than STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths. The A is for arts subjects. Will the Minister assure me that he values the importance of arts training, particularly for a city such as Bristol, where there are so many jobs in the creative industries, and that he does not regard subjects such as animation as providing Mickey Mouse qualifications?

Far from it—spreading apprenticeships to cover the whole economy, including the creative industries, is extremely important. In fact, I was at a breakfast this morning with representatives of the UK music industry to promote music apprenticeships, precisely because we must make sure that the training we support on behalf of taxpayers is needed by employers and reflects the modern economy, including the creative industries in Bristol.

I congratulate the Minister on today’s announcement. Will he congratulate the brilliant leadership shown by Fiona Kendrick, the chief executive of Nestlé, which wants to have 1,000 apprentices? That will benefit enormously the factory in Hatton in south Derbyshire, following a £200 million investment.

I pay tribute to Nestlé. I also pay tribute to members of the 5% Club, who have committed to having 5% of their work force as apprentices and graduate entrants. That will make sure that we can give jobs, as they become available, to young people in this country.

I am a beneficiary of vocational training, as a former apprentice brickie. Is the Minister aware that the figure he gave of 12 months for the minimum length of stay is only 11 months, according to BIS? Does he believe that short-term vocational programmes, rather than apprenticeships, damage the apprenticeship brand?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that driving up quality is very important. I pay tribute to him, not least in that for all potential apprenticeships watching, he stands as an example of where apprenticeships can get people.

Three years ago, I became the first MP to hire an apprentice to work in my office. Having qualified, Jade Scott is still with me, and is now my office manager in Hexham. I can assure the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) that he should do exactly the same.

Does the Minister agree that although apprenticeships have doubled in the north-east, we need to encourage not only larger companies that have groundbreaking programmes, such as Egger and Accenture, but smaller SMEs to kick in and provide the jobs and apprenticeships that we need?

Yes, I do agree, but I would caution that more than half of apprentices are in SMEs, and we must make sure that SMEs—as well as us in this House—know about the value of apprentices.

I appeal to the Minister not to forget the needs of NEETs. I thank him for meeting the Employability Trust, which is based in Peterlee; he may recall meeting Bill Marley. Will he commend its excellent work and the need to support its activities?

I remember the meeting very clearly, and I commend the trust’s work. It is vital to tackle the problem of NEETs—those aged 16 to 18 not in education, employment or training—but we must also recognise that their number hit a record low last week, and we should all celebrate that fact.

I commend my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for vocational learning and his plan for reform. What more can he do to enthuse schools to improve their links with businesses so that we can maximise the opportunities available to young people?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, and I very much look forward to visiting his local college some time soon to see the work that is happening on the ground. Stronger links between businesses and schools and between employers and schools are really important in making sure that when people leave school, they have what it takes to get the jobs that are available.

As my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary set out this week, the barrier between academic and vocational learning is breaking down, because in the modern economy, people need the knowledge, the skills and the behaviour to succeed. Academic subjects are becoming more vocational, and vocational subjects are becoming more academic. Instead of seeing them as two completely separate areas, we must make sure that young people can get the skills, knowledge and behaviour they need to be able to perform in the workplace.

In Pendle, we have seen a stonking increase in apprenticeships. The outstanding Nelson and Colne college told me yesterday that it currently has 22 apprenticeship vacancies with small and medium-sized local employers around my patch. Will the Minister visit Pendle to look at the work of Nelson and Colne college, and the new one-stop apprenticeship shop created in Nelson town centre?

There will be a wide welcome for today’s statement, and for the success that the Government have achieved in spreading and increasing apprenticeships, but nowhere is the success of apprenticeships more important than in Wales. What discussions has the Department had with the Welsh Government about liaison and the spread of knowledge, expertise and experience, so that we ensure success in Wales and, in a general sense, ensure that we make devolution work for Britain?

I am grateful for that question. I meet my Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish counterparts regularly. I plan to go to Cardiff later this year to meet them to ensure that we learn from best practice. As my hon. Friend knows, the Education Minister in Wales recently apologised for the state of Welsh education. Wales is working to improve the system and to learn lessons from the education systems in the other devolved Administrations and in England. An important part of our work is to drive up standards for everybody.

In commending the statement, I suggest that the Minister visit Leeds, where there was a 38% increase in the number of apprenticeships between 2012 and 2013. Last night at the Leeds apprenticeship awards, the Leeds city region apprenticeship challenge, which aims to get 1,000 more firms taking on apprentices, was launched. Will he support that challenge? Does he agree that the key is that the public sector, the private sector and the further education sector must work together to make it a success?

Yes. I have visited Leeds to see what it is doing. It is using Government support to tackle its skills shortages. Again, further education institutions—in fact, all education institutions—and employers must work together to ensure that what is taught is what is needed.