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Skills and Training Facilities

Volume 583: debated on Tuesday 1 July 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. This is an important debate about improving skills and training facilities in small cities and towns, and the subject is close to my heart. In my maiden speech four years ago I said that

“here in the UK, it is possible to help a child out of poverty and improve their chances in life if they receive a good education. However, we are not doing enough; we are not lifting enough people out of poverty. In my constituency, like in so many others across the UK, there are children who have tried so hard in school. There is a cadre of dedicated and professional staff who have helped them along the way and invested so much of themselves in helping those children try to improve their life chances, but the system does not seem to work. Those children are being forced through an education system that pushes them out the other end with little chance of getting a job, as they do not have the skills that local employers want.

We need to encourage employers to work with local schools and colleges, to get fully involved in education, to highlight the skills that are missing and even perhaps to take preventive action, possibly by designing some of the more vocational courses. Perhaps the prize at the end of the course should be a job or an apprenticeship with the employer. We need to be innovative and flexible, so that courses can reflect the skills gap locally and more local people can get local jobs.” —[Official Report, 1 July 2010; Vol. 512, c. 1063.]

When I said that four years ago I set myself a target—to help 1,000 young people into apprenticeships.

Does my hon. Friend agree that Members of Parliament can help by holding apprenticeship fairs, such as the one that I will be holding on Friday in my constituency? Companies such as Jaguar Land Rover will be taking part.

I could not agree more. Apprenticeship fairs are powerful tools. I held a jobs fair recently in my constituency at which a large number of people—employers, people from educational institutions and young people—came together. That led to a number of people getting apprenticeships.

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does for the people of Stevenage, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. Does he agree that apprenticeships have value in combining training and work? In Dartford we have doubled the number of apprenticeship places since 2010. Does he agree that the Department for Work and Pensions should continue its policy of supporting them?

I completely agree. That is an important point.

The target I set myself was to help 1,000 young people into apprenticeships in my first term in Parliament. I am delighted with the progress that has been made in Stevenage in the past four years. Six weeks ago in Prime Minister’s questions I asked whether the Prime Minister would

“join me in congratulating the educational institutions and businesses in my constituency that have increased…apprenticeship starts from just over 200 in 2010 to over 800 a year now”.—[Official Report, 14 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 747.]

That is a fantastic figure, and I am incredibly proud of it. The progress that has been made is amazing, and I congratulate the Minister for working to ensure that an apprenticeship means training for a real skill, with a real job and a real future at the end of it. I had the pleasure of meeting the Minister’s parliamentary apprentice last week. She is an enthusiastic young lady and committed to learning. I hope that he will tell us a little more about her experience when he responds to the debate.

There is much more to be done, however, nationally and locally. In my constituency we have smashed the 1,000 apprenticeship starts target for the present Parliament. I now want 1,000 apprenticeships to start this year alone—that would be 1,000 young people choosing skills and training for their future. What a statement of support that would be for young people in my constituency from employers and educational institutions that have skills and facilities.

Some hon. Members may have old-fashioned ideas about the quality of apprenticeships and the roles and careers that they offer. They may, at the mention of apprenticeships, think of a time-served traditional skill set such as plumbing, bricklaying or working as car mechanic—and what is wrong with that? Those are great jobs, offering a great future with skills that can be transferred all over the world. I promise hon. Members that there is more demand around the world for plumbers, brickies and mechanics than for Members of Parliament. They are far more likely to get a visa for the United States or Australia than we are. However, there are also a range of other apprenticeship opportunities in my constituency that will surprise some hon. Members. There are apprentice accountants, apprentice missile builders and apprentice rocket scientists.

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend that the quality and range of the apprenticeships that are available is extraordinary. In my constituency an engineering company is expanding its apprenticeship programme to bridge the skills gap that has, unfortunately, grown up in the past 15 years. Does he agree that apprenticeships of that quality are a way of bridging the skills gap, and that they will help us to deliver our long-term economic plan?

I agree completely. My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. More than 10,000 scientists and engineers work in my constituency. The skills gap is a huge issue for companies in the area, which need people who can deliver such skills; they need investment in the future work force, so that they can continue to compete.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for central Government to help support training organisations and employers in smaller places such as Carlisle and Stevenage, if we are to create the quality jobs we want?

I agree with that valuable point. My hon. Friend stands up for Carlisle in his usual robust way. It is important for large towns and small cities to have those skills and training facilities; they should not just be attached to large employers.

In my constituency there are 4,000 research scientists employed at GlaxoSmithKline; there are 1,500 people employed at MBDA, which has a range of missiles in development; and another 1,500 are employed at Airbus Defence and Space, as it has just been rebranded, which builds 25% of the world’s telecommunications satellites. However, 90% of apprentices in the area are employed by small and medium-sized enterprises, and that happens only because they have access to training facilities and skills.

It is important to address this issue. A company in my constituency called Astral Training runs a training package that is attuned to the things that employers want, which will bring their employees’ skills on. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should focus on what employers and trainers want? The focus should be not on what we think is right, but on what employers think. They will employ the people, so we should make sure that they are trained to their needs.

I completely agree. The juxtaposition between employers and education is important. Top-down centralised targets do not work, because places such as High Peak, Stevenage and Carlisle have different employment needs. There is a need for local skills and training facilities that can deliver to those areas.

People sometimes say that what we are talking about is not rocket science; well, in Stevenage it actually is—we have apprentice rocket scientists. Why have we been so lucky in Stevenage? The simple answer is that we have always had a great respect for apprentices in particular, and I have managed to persuade many SMEs that taking on an apprentice is a way of investing in their work force and future turnover. I will visit any company I can that takes on an apprentice, and meet them personally. Perhaps if I did not make those visits we would already have reached my target of 1,000 apprenticeship starts for this year—that is something for me to think about.

I have also worked with a local bank, which was close to agreeing to complete any apprenticeship-based paperwork for its SME business customers that took on a new apprentice. Unfortunately the individual that I was working with has moved on, so I need to revisit the matter and try to rebuild the approach. That would have released a whole range of new, smaller companies that are concerned about paperwork to move forward and employ an apprentice. The Minister has simplified the system, but fear of paperwork remains a barrier for many SMEs. I urge him to continue to reduce it as much as possible.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on small towns and cities. Does he think that one of the psychological barriers in small towns and cities is that they rarely rate a mention? In the north-west, Lancaster and Fleetwood are rarely mentioned in articles and speeches. It is always Manchester, usually meaning Greater Manchester, and Liverpool, usually meaning Greater Merseyside, that are referred to.

I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend about Manchester, but with my accent I cannot agree about Liverpool. Lancaster is close to my heart—my sister-in-law went to Lancaster university, which is a great institution. Many people are interested in Lancaster and Fleetwood, where there are good companies employing apprentices. My hon. Friend is doing a great job to ensure that they are pressing ahead with that.

Another reason why we are lucky in Stevenage is that we are so close to London—only 26 minutes from King’s Cross on the fast trains. For many employees that means that it is easy to move jobs and to get a pay rise of £3,000 or £4,000 just for going into London. It is easy to obtain quick career progression by popping into London. Many of my local companies recognise that by employing young people with strong roots in the area, they tend to stay with the company and build a career with that company. The retention rate among apprentices locally is incredibly high, and I am sure the Minister will be able to inform us of the average retention rate of apprentices and time served with a company. In some of my local companies, people who were apprentices many years ago now serve on the board, and some of those are multinational companies.

Schools and local colleges accept that they have a role and responsibility to help their pupils into work and to develop the skills they will need to enable them to compete in the workplace.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. What is important about apprenticeships is that we are moving away from the obsession with everyone going to university, and creating a work force that people need. Winder Power in Pudsey has a young apprentice who designed a new power supply that will save that business billions of pounds over the next 10 years. Is that not the sort of thing we should be encouraging, instead of telling people to go off and get a degree from some university?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I am about to come to the fact that nationally, there is a lot of pressure on young people from parents and teachers to go to university. If that is right for the person and they want to pursue that option, that is their decision, but they should be given a choice. I have had some issues in my constituency with parents pushing their children towards university. Those 18-year-olds, who are old enough to fight for their country, are pushed into university because their parents feel that that is what is best for them, but it is often not best for them.

When my hon. Friend comes across parents who are keen for their children to go to university rather than to take on an apprenticeship, will he use the example of Case New Holland in my constituency, which manufactures one in 10 of the world’s tractors? The current managing director started as an apprentice, building tractors on the shop floor, and now runs a £7 billion export company.

My hon. Friend gives a classic example of the importance of apprentices to the local economy and local community. I would be delighted to meet that individual and to see some of his tractors in action, because—this may surprise hon. Members—we have a range of farms in Stevenage.

The Minister has done a huge amount of work on level 5 and 6 apprenticeships. A level 5 apprenticeship is equivalent to an old higher national diploma and a level 6 apprenticeship is equivalent to a bachelor’s degree. Some companies in my constituency already have level 5 apprenticeships and are working towards level 6 apprenticeships. Other companies provide their apprentices with day release and pay for them to go to university to secure a degree. Pursuing an apprenticeship is a huge opportunity in my constituency.

On the whole we are lucky, because we have created a culture locally whereby apprenticeships are highly sought after and the local community is engaged in helping our young people into work. During national apprenticeship week, I visited a local company in Stevenage, Solveway, at its training centre in Barnwell school to launch its IT apprenticeship programme. A local company has a training centre for apprentices in a secondary school in Stevenage—that is a fantastic example of the great partnership work we are promoting in Stevenage between the business, education and training communities.

Solveway is working in partnership with Barnwell school, which now has two IT apprentices and has already placed several other apprentices since the programme started in 2014. The aim is to provide an alternative career path for students who are interested in IT that should lead to permanent employment. Barnwell school’s head teacher, Tony Fitzpatrick, said:

“We have been very fortunate to be approached by Solveway to work in partnership with them. It makes perfect sense to have Solveway based at Barnwell School, there are many benefits for both parties and in particular for our students’ future career opportunities.”

Solveway director, Keith Swain, said:

“We have been overwhelmed by the support received from Barnwell School, local business and the community in support for this venture.”

That is a classic example of how people can come together in a local community and focus on giving young local people jobs and opportunities.

We spend a lot of time talking about what qualifications young people will get. I got my GCSEs, my A-levels, my first degree and then my master of science degree. I cannot remember what my GCSE results were. The point is that as we get each set of qualifications, the previous ones are no longer relevant, but if we had the opportunity to pursue apprenticeships, those skills would have been skill sets for life. It is important that people can go to university, but it is also important that they have the opportunity to pursue an apprenticeship if they want to.

The progress we have made is truly amazing, especially in such a short time and under such difficult economic circumstances. With our long-term economic plan working and unemployment continuing to fall in many of our constituencies, it is incredibly important that we push harder and faster to increase the number of apprenticeships and to improve skills and training facilities in our constituencies. Investing in our young people is investing in our future. I want to see more ventures like the one at Barnwell school, but the reality is that that requires a dynamic company working with receptive school leadership who want to see their pupils make progress. There is no reward mechanism for schools and companies that come together in this way, and the costs are taken on board. I would like the Minister to incentivise that type of initiative and to help more schools to help more of their pupils into work in more of our constituencies.

After that tour de force, I am not sure I can respond other than with trepidation. It is great to see such a strong turnout from hon. Members in support of skills in towns and cities across the country, and particularly in support of apprenticeships. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), not least for his heartfelt and enthusiastic support for the long-term economic plan, but also for securing this debate and allowing the issues to be aired and discussed so that we can consider where we need to go next. It is undoubtedly true that we have made a lot of progress, but we must always look to the future.

We know that skills are directly responsible for growth, and I am sure that my hon. Friend’s constituents would want me to pay tribute to his work in increasing the prevalence and knowledge of apprenticeships in his area. As he said, there were 830 in the last year for which full figures are available, and I give my wholehearted support to the target of more than 1,000 apprenticeships next year. I am sure that with his energy, he will reach that. In Stevenage, youth unemployment on the claimant count has fallen by 34% over the past year, due in part to the great employers of Stevenage, but also in part to his efforts.

Many important points have been raised in the debate. The doubling of apprenticeships in Dartford is an important element of reducing youth unemployment there; it has been reduced by over 30% in the last year. Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley), have had apprenticeship fairs, and I wish her every success with the one that is coming up.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) correctly identified the false target that was set in the past, which was that 50% of people ought to go to university. Like many hon. Members, I went to university, and it works for some people, but the fact that people felt that they were pushed in one way when it may not have been right for them was a mistake. It also led to a policy focus on those who went to university, rather than on ensuring that all young people, whatever their circumstances, can reach their potential. We have a vision that it should become the norm that as people leave school or college, they go either to university or into an apprenticeship. Our job is to ensure that there are high-quality options for both and that the choice is theirs, according to their circumstances, so I strongly agree with what my hon. Friend said.

Likewise, in order to ensure that those high-quality options are available, it is important that we have high-quality apprenticeships. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) has done in supporting that direction of travel. It was a pleasure to go to Lancaster recently with my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) and see the work that is being done there, not least in the local college, on driving up the quality and provision of apprenticeships.

Similarly, there has been a big expansion of apprenticeships in Carlisle. I learned lessons in Carlisle and brought them back to try to improve, in particular, the access of small businesses to apprenticeships. That is an issue across the country, but it was really highlighted to me by the discussions that we had in Carlisle.

None of this is possible without the support of employers. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) made the point that the focus on the needs of employers must be front and centre, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage in his maiden speech. That thread goes through the heart of our skills reforms to ensure that training is both rigorous and responsive to the needs of employers. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak made a very important point about that. Stafford, for instance, has seen the biggest fall in the youth claimant count over the last year—it has gone down by more than 40% in just one year. We should all congratulate Stafford on that and learn from what it has done—more than most places—to improve the job prospects of young people.

We are making a lot of progress, but we need to do much more. The expansion of higher apprenticeships has mentioned, and it is important. Ensuring that we fill the gap between lower-level training and academic, university-level study is close to my heart. Some of the biggest skills shortages that we have as a country are among higher-level technicians. Higher apprenticeships are a big part of the answer to that, supported by the new national colleges that we are bringing in. We will announce very shortly the location of the first national college—the national college for rail, to support the development of HS2.

I was asked what I thought about retention among apprentices. The statistics are very interesting; they show not only that retention is higher among apprentices, but that retention and morale are higher in workplaces that have apprentices, even among the non-apprentices. I think that is because if employers are putting something into their staff, it increases the morale of the whole work force. People feel that they are building something for the future and have a stronger relationship with their employer. That is something that any employer, whether or not they have apprentices yet, can heed. It is certainly true in my parliamentary office, where we went out to hire an apprentice and came back with two, because the quality of the applicants was so high. They are both brilliant. They are working on casework and constituency issues and learning about the House of Commons and the democratic process, and they are doing a brilliant job for me. I am delighted to put on the record publicly the support they have given me, and I would encourage any hon. Member who is thinking about it to take on an apprentice—in fact, I would encourage an hon. Member who is not thinking about it to think about it and take on an apprentice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage also mentioned the importance of ensuring that we get the best quality training, and I want to dwell on that for the final couple of minutes. We have to ensure that we make the best use of technology to spread opportunity. Every learner should have the chance to gain from increasingly prevalent and cutting-edge technological solutions for learning. In the same way that in the past, most of the rest of our lives has been changed by technology, so learning can be improved by the use of technology.

We set up a group, the so-called FELTAG—the further education learning technology action group—to investigate the barriers to the use of technology in further education, and we are now looking across the board at the whole of education. We found, for instance, that as many as 80% of colleges were relying on a single broadband connection. Bandwidth is vital, as more and more people bring their own devices and use them while they are learning. We are now helping colleges to install more bandwidth. Some 73 colleges, including Hertford regional college, which serves Stevenage, are being upgraded in the first tranche, and we are stimulating innovation in education technology through the Technology Strategy Board.

I want to put on the record that apprenticeships, in the past, have been in traditional industries, but they increasingly cover the whole range of occupations in the modern British economy. We must be on the front foot in looking at how technology can support the provision of education, especially within the workplace, where it can have the biggest impact, not least by keeping people engaged in learning when they may otherwise have been disengaged. Ensuring that we can bring that to bear on increasing the number of apprenticeships is very important.

Companies in Stevenage have taken an active part in what is called our trailblazer programme for rejuvenating apprenticeships and making sure that the training that is delivered is the training that employers need. Companies such as BAE Systems, which I know has a big presence in Stevenage, have played a vital role, because it is not we politicians who know what training is necessary in any occupation; it is the companies themselves. I am very grateful to the companies that have put in time and effort to get this right. We need to come up with a product that works across the whole sector that the apprenticeship is designed for, but companies large and small that get involved right at the start in designing what the apprenticeship should look like play a particularly important role. They come from all over the country, including from Stevenage, and I want to thank them for their help.

Finally, in the coming weeks, we will be delivering on local growth deals, many of which involve strong skills elements. I hope that I have the support of hon. Members as we roll out those growth deals, so that we can ensure that the training is what is necessary in local labour markets and fits local need, rather than being at the direction of a Minister. It should respond to demand on the ground from employers to make sure that we can truly do what is necessary to build economies and make them stronger right across the country.

Perhaps more important than that being an economic exercise, vital though restoring the economy is, is that it is also an exercise in promoting equality of opportunity, social justice and social mobility. It is ultimately about doing what we can to make sure that everybody in our society has the opportunity to transcend the circumstances of their birth, to make the most of their talents, to have their expectations raised, and to build for themselves a career—and the stability of finances that comes with it—that is rewarding and valuable to them and their families. In that way we can build not only a stronger economy, which so many crave, but a stronger society and sense of purpose. The apprenticeship programme that we in this Chamber all support plays a important role in doing that.

Sitting suspended.