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Education: Vocational Education

Volume 752: debated on Monday 3 March 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the approach taken by Germany and Austria in promoting vocational education; and what lessons they have drawn for the United Kingdom and UK competitiveness.

My Lords, in Germany and Austria, vocational education is of high quality and closely involves all local employers, which in Germany is sometimes on a compulsory basis. Of course there are differences between our countries, but there is much we can learn from them. This has informed our reforms of vocational education and Professor Alison Wolf’s review. By introducing the tech bacc and tech levels, reforming apprenticeships and through our UTCs and studio schools, we are expanding high-quality technical education while at the same time ensuring that industry is involved at every step of the way.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that welcome news. We all valued the visit of Chancellor Merkel to Parliament last Thursday, during which she spoke of competitiveness. The German education system does a better job for the nation’s economy and for the less academic partly by ability streaming in schools with the possibility of switching between streams. This provides better educational outcomes and a larger, better pool of talent that can be apprenticed to German business, which is very actively involved. Can we improve our PISA scores and our business performance by doing the same in our schools?

My noble friend is quite right that the PISA results were a stark wake-up call for all of us about the need to improve our education system across the board in order to compete internationally. In comparison with Germany, we do particularly badly on maths and science. To achieve improvements, we are continuing to introduce a whole suite of reforms, as noble Lords know. As for streaming, we believe that all pupils need a core body of knowledge and indeed I understand that Germany is now extending the period during which their pupils have this. However, there is much that we can learn from Germany. Our UTCs and studio schools, of which we have now approved almost 100, are modelled closely on the success of German technical schools, as are our higher apprenticeships.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned studio schools in both his responses. I have recently been appointed a patron of studio schools. Since they were first started in 2010, how many schools have opened and what progress has there been on this excellent initiative that encourages employability skills and a more hands on approach? The CBI says that employers want employability skills. Will the Government be funding more studio schools?

I am delighted to hear of the noble Lord’s involvement in studio schools. It is fantastic for someone with his experience to be giving back in this way. There are 46 studio schools, 28 of which are open with a further 18 in pre-opening phase. More than 400 employers are involved in studio schools. We welcome all high-quality applications for studio schools.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on the points that she made, with which I agree totally. Could we not emulate Germany in another way by recognising vocational qualifications such as apprenticeships? Apprenticeships are celebrated in Germany very much like graduate degrees are celebrated in this country. For instance, engineers who have come up through an apprenticeship route are held in much esteem, much more than they are in this country. What can we do to make sure that we emulate that?

The noble Baroness is quite right. The first thing we can do is to reform the standard of our previously existing vocational qualifications, which were nowhere near good enough, with far too many that were not doing our pupils any favours. However, for the first time we now have a high and equal status pathway for pupils through the tech bacc.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in Germany 60% of school children enjoy some form of technical education? The figure in Britain is 15%, and that is one of the reasons why at the moment Angela is the rooster in the walk. Will he ensure that the expansion of UTCs continues? We have 50. There should really be 100 as these colleges are the only colleges that produce employable engineers and technicians and so far none of their students has joined the ranks of the unemployed.

I pay tribute to my noble friend’s passionate enthusiasm and drive in support of the UTC programme. It is admirable. As he knows, we welcome as many high-quality UTC applications as we can get.

My Lords, many further education colleges encourage young people who have already attained five GCSEs at school effectively to resit vocational courses at the same level as GCSEs—level 2—rather than pushing these students to a level 3 —A-level standard—qualification. What steps are the Government taking to give incentives to colleges to push students to progress and to deliver quicker and better the vocational skills that our economy desperately needs?

I am grateful for that question. We are looking closely at the attainment targets for FE colleges and we will be focusing, with Ofsted, much more closely on this.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that high-quality careers education and properly trained careers advisers are necessary so that young people in schools know the full range of opportunities available to them from vocational education?

I agree that they are extremely helpful, but my noble friend will have heard me say before that the technology has moved on from the careers adviser being the gold standard. The gold standard must be the active involvement of all schools with business so that all their pupils have a clear, direct line of sight to the workplace.

My Lords, have the Government looked at the Swiss model of higher education? Of the order of only 20% of young people attend universities, which are essentially academic, but virtually everybody else gets seven years of sandwich training. Moreover, Switzerland is assessed to have the highest general level of education for its citizens in the world.

I am aware that the Swiss have a very successful education model. We have studied models around the world and happen to have taken note of this, although Switzerland is a specific country. I shall look at this in more detail and would welcome a discussion with my noble friend about it.