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Vocational Qualifications Reform Plan

Volume 752: debated on Wednesday 5 March 2014


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made in another place by my honourable friend the Minister of State for Skills and Enterprise.

“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 onwards march of apprenticeships and their rejuvenation and expansion. We want it to become the new norm for young people to have the choice to go 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, and today we set out plans to reform adult skills more broadly. This builds on the foundations provided by our reforms to schools, the introduction of tech levels and Doug Richard’s work into the future of apprenticeships. 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, we will have removed more than 6,500 qualifications not valued by employers from government funding, allowing nearly £200 million of funding to be redirected towards more effective qualifications. The reforms will also: give employers greater ownership of qualification design and standards; attract funding only if they 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 to help people into work. So we must focus support on those qualifications that employers value.

As a result of these reforms, qualifications in subjects like 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 we are dealing with unemployed people just coming back into education.

The reforms will also make the qualification system easier for learners and employers to use. 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 make sure they are delivering employment and progression, and 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”.

My Lords, I confess disappointment at the Statement we have just heard. As the Minister said, this is National Apprenticeship Week—something that the previous Government instituted—and I do not think this is much of a celebration in relation to how we can promote the quality and value of vocational qualifications and the quality and number of apprenticeships. The Government are going to cut funding for 5,000 adult vocational courses—they say to simplify the skills system. According to BIS, low-value courses will be cut and £200 million of the skills budget redirected toward relevant qualifications. I do not argue with the idea of employer ownership of occupational standards and qualifications but will give one warning: beware narrow frameworks which do not embrace transferrable skills. Given that the estimate of the number of times people will change their careers or employment is now seven over a working lifetime, we have to take that into account.

The Skills Funding Statement announced that the total adult skills budget is down by 9% in 2014-15 compared with the previous year and will be down by 11% in 2015-16. Over those two years, the total adult skills budget will be cut by £463 million. If we really are concerned about improving the quality and increasing the number of skills possessed by the adult population, this seems a funny way of going about it. Also of concern is, despite the fact that the Government have been questioned about this, exactly how many people will continue to be employed in the National Apprenticeship Service. How many have been laid off from that organisation?

We agree that a simplification of the further education system is long overdue, but simply cutting courses does not guarantee better quality. What are the Government doing to ensure that training standards are higher across the board? Why did they vote against an amendment proposed by our party to the deregulation Bill calling for all apprenticeships to be level 3 qualifications? Currently, two-thirds of apprenticeships are level 2 qualifications. What will the Government do to address the massive lack of employer demand for apprenticeships, something that I have raised again and again and never received a satisfactory reply? Only 8% of employers in England offer apprenticeships compared with more than a third in our main competitor countries in northern Europe. Why oh why do the Government not demonstrate their commitment by insisting that all public procurement contracts of a reasonable size should carry a requirement to run apprenticeships? We did it. When I attended the Crossrail apprentices awards ceremony yesterday, I saw that the company now has 283 apprenticeships and is progressing towards the 400 that we insisted it should have. I have never had a satisfactory answer from the Minister. Do not tell us that there are legal barriers because we managed to do it.

What will the Government do to ensure better quality teaching in further education? This Government have downgraded the training requirements for FE lecturers. They no longer need any form of teaching qualification and are not required to have attained English and maths to even a basic level. That is why the Husbands review recommended that all further education lecturers should hold a teaching qualification at level 2 or above in English and maths.

The Statement today is tinkering at the edges. We need a radical overhaul of the skills system, and that is why Labour’s Skills Taskforce has set out recommendations that will reinvigorate FE providers as specialist institutes of technical education characterised by high standards of teaching and strong links to employers across the local and regional labour market. We need safeguards to ensure that we do not neglect the social value of courses. David Hughes, head of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, has pointed out that some “low value” courses have a role to play in that they can be a re-entry point for adults with low skills, those who have recently been made redundant or those who have suffered ill health.

After four years of downgrading vocational education, it seems that the Government are desperately trying to play catch-up. Their ambivalence towards vocational education shows a shocking complacency about the challenges we face as a country, with the number of 16 to 18 year-olds in education or training having fallen by 19,200 in the past year. Instead of a few warm words, Ministers should really be backing Labour’s plan for young people with new specialist institutes of technical education, a rigorous route to a technical baccalaureate, accredited vocational qualifications, more high-quality apprenticeships, and skills and careers advice. On careers advice, I still find it depressing that when I go into secondary schools as part of the Lords outreach programme and ask young people coming into the sixth form what they have been recommended to do, there is still only one direction in which they are being pushed. For the vast majority of them it is to study A-levels. When I ask them what they know about apprenticeships, never mind space apprenticeships, I might as well ask them if they are embarking on the next trip to Mars.

Schools are not fulfilling their legal requirement to give a wide range of career guidance, which should embrace vocational qualifications and apprenticeships. The Government should be insisting that every school does that—that every school invites businesses in and invites young apprentices back so that pupils can see them as role models. It is unfortunate that in National Apprenticeship Week, when the Government had an opportunity to make some real, valuable changes, they have missed that opportunity.

My Lords, the picture painted by the noble Lord, Lord Young, is not something that I recognise. Here we are at a time of record new apprenticeships. Since 2010 we have seen more than 1.6 million apprenticeship starts. This year alone we have seen a record 168,000 new apprenticeships. The noble Lord himself is a very successful example of how apprenticeships work but the picture he paints is not something that I or the Government recognise.

It is National Apprenticeship Week and I am sure that many a noble Lord who has opened up a newspaper —even the local Metro, which is a free newspaper—will have seen a plethora of adverts taken out by employers encouraging apprenticeships. That is something that we should all welcome.

I will pick up on some of the specific points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Young. First, he mentioned employer demand. I have already dealt with that. When you look at the record number of apprenticeship starts, surely the proof is in the pudding: the number of apprenticeships that are being taken up. Recently, as I am sure the noble Lord is fully aware, we announced the Trailblazers scheme across eight different sectors. That has been taken up by a vast range of employers, such as National Grid. Later this year that will be extended in the second phase to include another 29 sectors and another 345 employers. That is progression, a way forward.

I am quite happy to talk to the noble Lord after this Statement and I hope he will share some of his experiences to ensure that this policy works for our future generations. I agree with him on some of the issues he raised, quite pertinently and appropriately, about careers advice. There is an important role for schools to play to ensure joined-up thinking at all levels. I am sure that the noble Lord and other noble Lords are aware that my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced only last week a scheme that we are considering: a UCAS-style points system whereby apprenticeships are an alternative way forward alongside universities. That is another thing that we are throwing into the mix and will be specifically looking at.

The noble Lord touched on a point that I totally adhere to. Since I have picked up this brief, I have become aware of the vital importance of mentoring. Mentoring does not mean just picking and choosing people in a firm when an apprentice joins, but someone who can work with that individual on all elements of their working life, including the basic skills—I am sure anyone who has been in the position of employer recognises the fact that the basic skills are sometimes missing, such as the ability to turn up on time and do a full day’s work. We also need to focus on these basic skills to ensure that our young people have all the opportunities and routes available to them in the years ahead.

I hope that the noble Lord will reflect on some of the comments I have made and welcome this Statement.

My Lords, there is a national shortage of engineers. What are we doing to encourage young people to take up engineering apprenticeships? There is not a national shortage of hairdressers, yet there are far more training opportunities than there are jobs available. In the field about which I know a little, the crafts, we are not doing enough to encourage crafts men and women to take on apprenticeships. We are not doing enough to show that there are richly fulfilling careers in the crafts. I hope that my noble friend will be able to flesh out the Statement a bit so that we can derive some more encouragement from it than I have been able to derive this afternoon.

My noble friend always speaks with great expertise on several areas. He has done so again in drawing attention to this issue. As he asked, I will pan out on this and reassure him. On the issue of engineering, he will recall that I mentioned Trailblazers in response to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Young. The 29 additional industries and sectors we will look at include various elements of engineering, including civil engineering and rail. That will be led by organisations that include Jacobs Engineering, Atkins, CH2M Hill and Hyder Consulting. My noble friend also talked about crafts. That is another sector that will be covered by the second phase of the Trailblazer scheme. It will be led by organisations including the Victoria and Albert Museum, Cockpit Arts and the Mulberry Tree Woodturnery. I hope my noble friend is assured that, as I said earlier, across these 29 sectors 345 employers have now demonstrated their willingness to be part and parcel of this scheme.

My Lords, I raise in particular the advanced apprenticeship in health, which I am steering through the round-table discussion that has been going on—I am not sure if the noble Lord is aware of it—working with all the unions and legislation bodies in nursing. We are still having this debate and it is very new; we have had one round-table discussion on nursing. We agreed that we would launch it as a Trailblazer but with the reservation that we are still doing a lot of work. Our next meeting is in two weeks’ time. I wonder why the document insists that the apprenticeship route will get to a stage where it must be university driven. In fact, we have talked to FE colleges, which do all the other apprenticeship and higher level stuff. Why can we not ensure that we have that opportunity? Certainly, that is the discussion we had in the round table. Maybe this is an early Statement and will change, but it needs to reflect that we have FE colleges working with our apprenticeship nurses.

I of course pay tribute to the noble Baroness’s work in this respect. It is exactly as she said: round-table discussions are taking place. We want to see what works effectively for all sectors. I certainly take on board her comments. I am sure that issue will be taken on board as we move the nursing element of these Trailblazer schemes forward.

My Lords, the Minister is quite right about the value of mentoring. In a factory where a young person learns an apprenticeship, it is often the older tradesmen who teach the youngster about life as well as the trade he learns. My thoughts go to a young person living, say, in Inverness who is keen to follow an aero-engine career in engineering in Derby. If that young person was going to a university there would be a college of residence but that is not the case for apprentices. Could the Government look into the possibility that where a young person is obliged to travel away from their home, help is given to find them accommodation—perhaps even in a university residence?

The noble Lord again makes a very valid contribution. I have already alluded to the importance of mentoring. It is something we do not at the moment emphasise enough. There is an old adage: I remember my late father always talked about how “old is gold”. When it comes to mentoring, that is certainly true.

My Lords, I warmly welcome the Statement in its intention. Clearly there needs to be a greater focus on vocational qualifications in FE but the danger is that the move towards focusing ends up with narrowness. I think that was the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Young, in his response. Indeed, we just heard of the need to learn about life as well as a particular skill.

The Minister referred to basic skills. There are a range of soft skills that employers value and that lead to a qualification being transferable. The skills that people learn in their vocational qualification often have to mutate or adapt into other skills. Can we have an assurance that in drawing up the curricula and requirements there is not too much instrumentalism—or payment by results, as is in the Statement—but rather that we do not lose sight of that broader purpose of education?

Again, it will suffice for me to say that the right reverend Prelate also makes very valid points. The intention here is not to narrow the field but to get the funding focused on exactly what employers require. As part of that training, of course the softer skills are important. This will not result in a cut in the overall funding that the Government are providing; it will result in better focused funding. Indeed, certain courses which have been cut had no take-up whatever. That does not mean that there are not some courses which only a few people take up; that should not demean the importance of those courses, and the Government are fully on board with that.

I welcome what the Minister said, and hope not to tire the House. Is he aware of the work by National Grid in mentoring more than 2,000 young offenders over the past 10 years, helping those young people into work and reducing the reoffending rate from 70% to well below 7%? Its experience is that such young people can become very loyal employees who rise more quickly through the system because of their ambition and drive, and because they are grateful for the support that they have had for National Grid. If it is in order, perhaps I can ask another quick question: with regard to public contracts, I recognise that the Minister will not want to overburden business, but given the need to act in that area, will he look at whether public contracts should involve requirements that businesses should have a certain number of apprentices?

I thank the noble Earl for his contribution. Of course, he will be aware that one of the other hats that I wear is in my engagement and involvement in the justice department, and with offender rehabilitation when the Bill was making progress through the House and subsequently. I am fully aware of the National Grid scheme. The noble Earl is right to outline its importance and the benefits that it brings. We hope that such schemes can also assist those young people who, unfortunately, have fallen on the wrong side of the law. We can assist in bringing them back to become productive citizens both for themselves and for society at large.

On the final point, I am aware of many a local scheme where employers are fully inputting into the services that they provide as part of the contracts. I recall from my own patch when I was a local councillor in Merton that there was a very good initiative called Take One where, working with the local chamber of commerce, we encouraged both small and medium-sized businesses locally to take on an apprentice or someone on work placement. That is having a very good effect; I think it is achieving rates of 93% of people who are in education or training in the borough, which shows that local schemes have a very good effect.

My Lords, the House may feel that those on the opposition Benches could be a little more generous and accepting of one of the most significant achievements of this Government. It is not only the doubling of apprenticeships which has been achieved, building on the foundations laid by the Labour Government; fundamental equality issues have also been addressed. We should recognise as a House the popularity of the expansion of those apprenticeships with young people, parents, employers and the public at large. It is good to see the big apprenticeship schemes for BT, Land Rover and Nissan now being almost more competitive than Oxbridge entry. That is a remarkable change in the quality, status and number of apprenticeships.

I should like to ask my noble friend several questions building on that. What efforts are the Government making to counter the slight fall-off in apprenticeships for 16 to 18 year-olds, and are they doing enough to help those with learning difficulties, who could be naturals for apprenticeships but can be put off by rigid academic standards? In those efforts, can the Minister counter the rumour that the Government are looking to increase the training cost contributions by employers to apprenticeship training to 50% for 18 and 19 year-olds? Finally, are the sector skills councils fully involved in the development of those new qualifications? There is a danger that qualifications too customised for specific employers will lead to a multiplication, not a simplification, of the number of qualifications.

I thank my noble friend for his support for what the Government are doing. The issues regarding 16 to 18 year-olds and learning disabilities are both very valid points. In that context, those have certainly come across as part of the review of apprenticeships and of the schemes on vocational training. I also remember, having been an employer as well in this regard, the importance of the need to have maths and English at a basic GCSE level. By September this year, if a 16 year-old has not achieved those qualifications, they will be supported until they achieve those two basic pillars. Regarding the 50% issue which my noble friend raises, perhaps I might write to him specifically on that.

As far as the sector skills councils are concerned they, along with other professional bodies, will be developing these skills. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wall, pointed out concerning nursing, all relevant interested parties and professional bodies are part of this review, ensuring that the qualifications which emerge from this will work specifically for not just the employers but the sector and, most importantly, for the individual. This is about ensuring long-term sustainability of employment. Finally, on funding, there is a consultation document which we are hoping to publish in due course.

My Lords, again and again over the past 50 years, Governments have announced shiny new policies for further education. Each time, we have been promised that there would be parity of esteem between vocational and academic education, that there would be an end to the chaos of poor quality qualifications and that we would finally overcome the legacy of poor quality technical education, which goes all the way back to the 19th century. Each time the performance has fallen far short of the promise. I do not mean to be ungenerous in my tone but will the Minister give us some reasons to expect that, this time, the result will be better than in the past?

On a lighter note, when the noble Lord said “This time”, I was reminded of an England football song from back in 1982. It was called “This Time (We’ll Get It Right)”. I cannot give that guarantee or assurance but I certainly recognise the picture that the noble Lord paints. Time and again, I am sure that each Government have had noble intent to ensure that there was a level of parity in terms of access and progress, whether one takes an academic or a vocational route. We feel that this increased focus on vocational qualifications, together with that on apprenticeship, and an increased take-up from employers across the country and the sectors, will certainly benefit those wishing to engage in this area.

I hope that all noble Lords are assured that this is about an ongoing discussion and ensuring that all those engaged in the sector are part and parcel of that discussion, both in terms of the apprenticeships that we offer and, more importantly, in the vocational training and education which is on offer. That is to ensure, as I have said, that it works for the individual in terms of their future employment prospects.

My Lords, might I press my noble friend a little more on the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Young, on careers advice in its widest meaning? I welcome the Statement today, of course, but I am sure that my noble friend accepts that this is another layer of confusing rearrangement for the young people whom it is meant to benefit. What interest are my noble friend and his department taking in the great importance of conveying the number of opportunities that are open to our young people? Are they listening to their responses and hearing the difficulty that they may have in accessing apprenticeships, for example? This is a whole tranche of work which, if it is not addressed, may well remove from so many deserving and able young people the very chances that the Government wish to give to them.

My noble friend speaks with great experience in this regard, particularly about the education sector. I agree with her, as I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Young: more needs to be done effectively in schools in terms of career advice. I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education is today in a college talking through some of the opportunities that are available to young people in terms not just of academic choices but of vocational and career choices.

My noble friend talked of increased confusion. We hope that, by lessening the number of courses and then making funding available focused on the courses that employers wish to see, the opportunities will be greater. However, the point that she makes is a valid one, and more work needs to be done. BIS and the Department for Education are working together to ensure that our careers services in schools reflect the opportunities and indeed the initiatives that the Government are taking forward.

My Lords, so far the Statement has concentrated on youth apprenticeships up to the age of 18, and it is right that we should. However, what plans, if any, do the Government have for adult apprenticeship—that is, for people over the age of 18 who want to get back into the economy, earning and learning?

The noble Lord makes a valid point about adult education. Again, our announcements today reflect that these vocational qualifications across the sectors, as I have already indicated, are not just specific to people within that 16 to 19 age group. There are additional issues to consider, which he rightly raises. There are issues of apprehension for someone such as a lady—my own wife is a very good example of this—who takes a career break because of young children; it has to be ensured that they are up to speed with developments in their own profession when they seek to return to it. There has to be a greater focus from both the Government and, more importantly, employers in ensuring that those opportunities are available. However, I assure the noble Lord that the current Trailblazer schemes that I talked of, which are in phase 1 and phase 2, cover all age groups, not just the 16 to 19 year-olds.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the new vocational qualifications will be used as the basis of a provision in the new secure colleges that are proposed by the Ministry of Justice?

If I may, I will write to the noble Lord specifically on that. As I commented earlier, the issue of the rehabilitation of offenders and young people who have fallen victim to crime who now wish to get themselves back on their feet is one of connectivity.

My Lords, it would be churlish not to acknowledge that the Government have substantially increased the number of apprenticeships since they came into power. I am a member of European Union Sub-Committee B, which is currently undertaking a review of a directive that is coming on unemployment for young people. We have been taking a substantial amount of evidence in this country. Would the Minister be interested to hear that a substantial number of people are concerned about the quality of some of those apprenticeship schemes that have been introduced? It is vital that we do not just look at numbers but start to look at the quality of what people are being trained in.

Secondly, would the Minister be interested to hear, to pick up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, that many people are saying that many youngsters are falling through the net and know nothing whatever about apprenticeships? Indeed, we were presented with evidence, which will be published shortly, that only one in five children between 14 and 16 years of age even knows what apprenticeships are. Ofsted has criticised what has been happening. Steps have been taken—the Minister says that it is now in the law that they should respond at school level to draw apprenticeships to children’s attention—but this is not good enough. To pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, we need some more flesh on the bones to see how this policy can be put in place. Will the Minister ensure that we make certain that people know about apprenticeships as well as seeking employers to provide them?

Bearing in mind the time, I totally concur on the second point. I hope that I have already indicated that I shall be taking many of the comments made today back to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as well as to the Department for Education. I am sure that there is a range of initiatives, including perhaps promotions and greater advertising of opportunities available through apprenticeships. I also concur with the noble Lord’s comment about quality over quantity. That is why I emphasise again that in the second Trailblazer project we have 29 more industry sectors coming online, with 345 employers. The apprenticeship document that has been produced emphasises quality over quantity.