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Volume 762: debated on Wednesday 10 June 2015


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to expand the apprenticeship programme for 16 to 18 year-olds.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Lennie and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

Over the next five years, we will support 3 million new apprenticeships. We are developing a package of measures to achieve this growth by getting more employers to offer apprenticeships so that many more young people can benefit from this valuable route to a successful career.

I thank the Minister for that reply. She will know that the Lords Library has produced statistics showing that of the apprenticeships available, only one quarter are currently going to young people under the age of 19. On top of this, by the admission of the Government’s own funding statement, funding for apprenticeships is going down. Of the 3 million new apprenticeships that the Government are promising to create by 2020, how many will be for 16 to 18 year-olds? Does the Minister agree that schools should be doing far more to encourage young people to consider alternative vocational entry into work?

My Lords, young people will inevitably be a huge focus of the scheme, but it is right not to exclude others because people can need to develop lifelong learning after the age of 19. We will be making a total investment of £1.5 billion in apprenticeships available in the current year, and I am delighted to say that training for 16 to 18 year-olds is fully funded by the Government, with a particular emphasis on English and maths.

My Lords, following on from the previous question, what plans do the Government have to invest in careers information, advice and guidance to ensure that not only young people but teachers and parents are fully aware of the value and opportunities offered by apprenticeships?

This is a very important point. We need to change the culture so that people see apprenticeships as an important career option. Since 2012, there has been a statutory duty on schools to provide independent careers guidance, including on the apprenticeship options. The careers and enterprise company will help schools to build strong links with employers. This is an area where we can really make a step change. Indeed, we can do that ourselves by the work that we do, speaking in schools and with the youngsters of today.

My Lords, given that the further education colleges provide the greatest part of the training that is essential for extremely important components of apprenticeships, and given that the Minister has just confirmed that the Government’s target of 3 million apprentices by 2020 is still in place, what is being done to ensure that the FE colleges such as those that are members of the 157 Group, of which I am a patron, have the funds to support this expansion?

My Lords, apprenticeships will be a priority area in the spending review. The noble Baroness rightly talks about the role that FE colleges can play, and I look forward to discussing further with her group how we can ensure that that money is well spent and links in with employer demand, which is essentially the approach that we now have to apprenticeships. There is so much more that can be done.

My Lords, I of course support the increase in the number of apprenticeships. However, I have heard concern from senior industrialists about the large variation in standards when it comes to what is expected of an apprentice—what knowledge they are meant to have, especially theoretical. There is serious concern about these large variations across industries and other institutions. Are the Government going to become involved in trying to improve the rigour of the standards that are expected?

The employer-led approach, with our trailblazers and so on, will actually mean that standards are set that employers want. We have improved quality already, for example by having a minimum duration of 12 months and requiring apprenticeships to be paid jobs. But there is more to do. One thing that we are going to do is hold ourselves to account by reporting every year on progress against the 3-million target, including other details. That plus the target will really make a step change in this area.

Does my noble friend agree that the shortage of skills in the general population is probably one of the most serious problems that this country faces, and that this Government’s attempts to build up the skills base through this increase in apprenticeships should be warmly welcomed by everyone in the House?

My Lords, while I welcome the Government’s commitment to expanding apprenticeships, including the personal commitment from the Minister, it would help if, instead of referring to 3 million, we recognised that of that 3 million at least 50% are accounted for by the re-skilling of over-25s—not that I deplore that. The real challenge, as the Minister well knows, is to expand the number of apprenticeships in the 16 to 18, and indeed the 16 to 24, age range. What can be done about that when significant numbers of employers still do not participate in apprenticeships? I think it is still less than one in five; that is the statistic.

I therefore have a couple of recommendations. First, does the Minister agree that the Government should consider making apprenticeships a statutory requirement in all public sector contracts? Secondly, will she consider looking at the local enterprise partnerships and local authorities that have the best track record so that best practice can be identified around the country?

My Lords, that is a subject for a debate. However, I can say that on the public sector side we will be taking steps to have more apprenticeships where procurement contracts are involved. On the point about the local enterprise partnerships, some of them are doing some brilliant stuff on skills and apprenticeships, which we should publicise much more fully.