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House of Commons Hansard
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08 May 2018
Volume 640

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We now come to a debate about progress on the Government’s skills strategy, in which we will hear from the former skills Minister and the present one.

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered progress on the Government’s skills strategy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. One thing that has remained remarkably consistent as I have spoken to business leaders in my constituency over many years is that, when I ask them what they look for in their future workforce, their answer does not often focus on exam certificates. They want individuals who have a good attitude and are good communicators, excellent problem solvers and strong team players. Yet, barely a day goes by without a story in the news about skills shortages in one sector or another.

It is a drain on our economy and our society that job vacancies cannot be filled because employers are unable to find the right skilled individuals. That is not just a challenge to productivity and prosperity; skills are a social justice issue too—perhaps the central one. When we look at the overwhelming number of senior leaders who were privately educated—I am lucky to be one of them—it is not so much their exam results that got them where they are today, but the connections they were able to make and the networks and team-working skills they developed. If we are serious about social justice, it is our duty to afford those opportunities to all young people.

Since the closure of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, no single organisation has had responsibility for monitoring skills shortages and sharing information about them, so I was delighted when the Edge Foundation stepped forward to form an analysis group, bringing together key organisations in the area. I pay tribute to the foundation’s chair, Lord Baker. The first in a regular series of its bulletin is published today, and it makes for challenging reading—I will happily ensure that copies are available to Members.

The British Chambers of Commerce report says that 60% of services firms and 69% of manufacturing firms experience recruitment difficulties.

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Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Culham Science Centre in my constituency? It has got together an apprenticeship hub that specialises in providing high-tech engineering apprenticeships for local people, and it has transformed how local firms react to those skills.

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My hon. Friend is a champion of skills and apprenticeships, and the Culham laboratory is exactly what we need to build up our skills base and address our skills deficit. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to the organisation he mentions.

Shortages of skilled manual labour in manufacturing remain at their highest level since records began. That concern is echoed by the CBI, whose education and skills survey last year showed that the number of businesses that are not confident about being able to hire enough skilled labour is twice that of those that are confident. Reducing the skills shortages must be a key aim of our skills strategy and a barometer of its success.

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I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on bringing the issue to Westminster Hall. Northern Ireland has a very strong education and IT skills system, which has been key in creating jobs and attracting new business. Does he feel that the Government should be encouraged to look to Northern Ireland as an example of how a skills strategy can be brought together? There are good examples there. Let us use what is good in the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to benefit us all.

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The hon. Gentleman is a great champion of skills. We can learn a lot from Northern Ireland’s incredibly high education standards. I am sure we have a lot to learn from the skills and the IT that he has just mentioned.

I recognise that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills has her work cut out because, as the skills strategy is implemented, the economy is changing rapidly. Driverless vehicles will automate road haulage and taxi operations. Artificial intelligence will power medical diagnosis, and 3D printing will be used to construct bridges and houses. Our skills strategy needs to not only address the skills shortages in our economy, but create our most resilient and adaptable generation of young people. They will need to be able to turn their hands to new careers and demonstrate the human skills such as creativity that robots cannot master.

CBI research shows that the biggest drivers of success for young people are attitudes and attributes such as resilience, enthusiasm and creativity. Although 86% of businesses rated attitude, and 68% aptitude, as a top attribute, only 34% said the same of formal qualifications. The Department for Education’s own employer perspectives survey showed that more than half of employers said that academic qualifications were of little or no value when recruiting, while two thirds said that work experience was significant or critical. Yet in the same survey just 58% of businesses said that 18-year-old school leavers in England were prepared for work. That is a key blocker to social justice and a gap that must be addressed through the skills strategy.

Before they are delivered into the care of the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, young people have already received more than a decade of education in school. As I said in the House only a couple of weeks ago, I am convinced that the quality of education, particularly in English and maths, has improved greatly in recent years. Yet despite record overall levels of public money going into schools, the skills shortages in our economy have been growing. Clearly, something has become disconnected in the wiring between our schools and our skills systems.

Four key steps would build on the strength of the knowledge-rich curriculum to ensure that it fosters young people who are also skills-rich and behaviours-rich—the areas that employers say they value most. First, we must remember that since 2015 all young people have been required to participate in some form of education and training up to 18. Yet GCSEs remain just as much the high-stakes tests they were when many young people finished their education at that age. We must fundamentally reimagine this phase of education as a time for our younger people to prepare themselves for their future life and work. At a time when we can extend the ladder of social justice to young people from all backgrounds, broadening their horizons, building their skills and helping them develop the social capital that will take them far, we have an opportunity for that phase of education to end in a much more holistic and comprehensive assessment—a true baccalaureate. Just as the international baccalaureate does in more than 149 countries, this would act as a genuine and trusted signal to employers and universities of a young person’s rounded skills and abilities.

Secondly, we must match the broader phase of education with a broader and more balanced curriculum. I support the need for every young person to be able to access through their schooling a working knowledge of our cultural capital, our history and our literature. However, it is also essential that we develop the next generation of engineers, entrepreneurs and designers. A narrow focus on academic GCSEs is driving out the very subjects that most help us to do that. Entrants in design and technology have fallen by more than two fifths since 2010, alongside reductions in creative subjects such as music and the performing arts—the very skills that will give young people an edge over the robots. There is a real danger that no matter how hard the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills works to make skills a success post 16, young people who have never experienced anything but an academic diet up to that age will be unable to compete for an apprenticeship or even progress to a T-level.

Thirdly, I often speak about the importance of careers advice, and it is vital, but we must go further and create deep connections between the world of education and the world of work that inspire and motivate young people. I am talking about employers providing externships so that teachers can experience local businesses and provide first-hand advice to their pupils, collaborating on projects that bring the curriculum to life and sharing real-world challenges to help students to develop their problem-solving skills. That kind of profound employer engagement strikes right at the heart of the social justice debate: it gives young people from all backgrounds the kinds of experiences, contacts and networks that have traditionally been the preserve of those attending elite institutions. We should merge the duplicate careers organisations into a national skills service that goes into schools and ensures that students have the opportunity to do skills-based careers.

Fourthly, we must acknowledge that what we measure affects what is delivered in the education system. Therefore, we should start to measure explicitly what really matters—the destinations of young people who attend our schools and colleges. At present, destination measures are seen as no more than a footnote in performance tables. We need to move destination measures front and centre, giving school leaders and teachers the freedom to deliver the outcomes that we want for our young people.

I had the pleasure last month of meeting senior education leaders from Nashville, Tennessee. Ten years ago, Nashville’s high schools had very poor rates of graduation, and businesses were clear that they were not receiving the skilled labour that they needed. They set about working intensively with the school board to revolutionise the system. In the first year of their high school experience, young people have the opportunity to take part in intensive careers exploration: through careers fairs, mentoring, visits and job research, they broaden their horizons and understand the full range of opportunities available. For the remainder of their time at high school, they join a career academy, which uses a particular sector of the local economy as a lens to make their schoolwork more relevant and engaging. Young people in the law academy learn debating skills by running mock trials, while those in the creative academy are mentored by lighting designers, who help them to understand the relevance of angles, fractions and programming in the real world.

The results are extraordinary. High school graduation has risen by more than 23% in 10 years, adding more than $100 million to the local economy. Attainment in maths and English has improved by as much as 15% to 20% as young people see the relevance of their work. Leading schools in the UK are already starting to show that similar approaches work just as well here. They range from School 21 in Stratford, where employer engagement is its ninth GCSE, to XP School in Doncaster, whose innovative expeditionary learning Ofsted has judged as outstanding across the board.

The planned programme of skills reforms can be a success only if it goes hand in hand with a schools system that is equally focused on preparing young people for work and adult life. I would encourage the Ministers responsible for skills and for schools to work closely together on that shared aim. I have no doubt that T-levels can provide great opportunities for young people to prepare for a successful career, and I am impatient to see them on the ground, having a tangible impact on young people’s lives. I would encourage the skills Minister to learn from some of our most prestigious apprenticeship employers and attach a rocket booster to the programme, but sometimes I wonder whether there is really a need at age 16 for young people to choose between a wholly academic route and a wholly technical route. Might many young people benefit from a more blended opportunity?

An excellent model exists north of the border in Scotland’s foundation apprenticeships, which are the same size as a single Scottish higher and can be taken alongside academic qualifications to maximise a young person’s options. They carry real currency with universities and support progression to higher education. They also allow a head start of up to nine months on a full modern apprenticeship. That is truly a no-wrong-door approach that helps people to keep their options open.

I want apprenticeships to go from strength to strength. Most people think of apprenticeships as helping young people to achieve full competency in their future career, but the figures show that in the 2016-17 academic year, 260,000 of the 491,000 apprenticeships started were at level 2, and 229,000 were started by individuals aged 25 and above. It is essential that apprenticeships continue to focus first and foremost on preparing young people for skilled jobs, otherwise we will weaken one of the rungs on the ladder of opportunity.

Continuing the expansion of degree apprenticeships—my two favourite words in the English language—will play a pivotal role in that. They hold the unique power to fundamentally address the issue of parity of esteem between academic and vocational education, which has plagued this country for far too long. They give young people the opportunity to learn and earn at the same time, gaining a full bachelor’s or master’s degree while putting that learning into practice in a real paid job. Leading employers are already making a dramatic shift from graduate to degree apprenticeship recruitment, which allows them to shape their future workforce. More must follow suit.

I recently came across an example of a remarkable university from Germany, DHBW Stuttgart, which is entirely made up of degree apprentices. I issue a challenge to our higher education institutions, including Oxford University, which will not even open the door to degree apprenticeships, to be the first to declare their intention to work towards becoming the first dedicated provider of degree apprenticeships.

We are at an exciting crossroads for the skills system. Employers are clear that there are significant and growing skills shortages, but they have given us a clear recipe to address them. The foundation for that must be laid in school by a broad and balanced curriculum, intensive employer engagement, and destination measures as a key driver of success. That will create the basis for a holistic system that prepares young people for high-quality T-levels and apprenticeships as part of a blended route that breaks down the artificial divide between academic and technical education to create a real ladder of opportunity for our young people.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to talk in broader terms. I have a great pile of briefings from my wonderful officials, which I will not refer to at all, because I would be telling him things that he probably already knows. He makes a wider point about why skills matter, and he is absolutely right that we have a significant skills shortage in this country.

I was at the WorldSkills competition in Abu Dhabi last year, and there was also a conference where I met many Ministers from Germany and Singapore—there were a whole host of them there. It is clear that we have a world skills shortage; it is not just in this country, although some countries are perhaps doing slightly better. One of the Ministers I talked to attributed their success in technical education, particularly at levels 4 and 5, largely to embedding maths and English so well in the curriculum. When young people came out of that skills system, it was a given that they had reached a high standard, so they could get on and take the academic or technical route that they wanted.

As my right hon. Friend rightly said, surrounding all that is this country’s economic need for a skilled workforce, but it is also about social justice. I did not go to private school and I did not have the networks that my right hon. Friend referred to, which many people have. In fact, I entered politics knowing almost nothing and absolutely nobody. I had to make it up on my own, which was fine for me—I chose politics as a second career—but it is not all right for a young person leaving school at whatever age. It should not be about who someone knows or actually about what they know, or where they live or where they come from; it should be about what skills they have.

My right hon. Friend talked about what employers are looking for. Like him, I have heard that reiterated to me time and again. It is about resilience, attitude, team playing, problem solving and aptitude. Those will not be learned only in the classroom. He also talked about the narrow focus of the curriculum. In some ways, there has been a focus on some of those academic subjects for exactly the reason a Minister from another country pointed out to me: a good foundation in certain key subjects, such as English, maths and digital skills, is important. However, it is also important to widen young people’s eyes to the opportunities that are out there.

My right hon. Friend talked about employer experience, which is critical, particularly for children who are not doing particularly well at school, who are bored in lessons and who do not understand the point of it. Contact with employers demonstrates to them why they are learning those things. It gives them a goal and an aim; it makes it all make sense. Without that it is much harder, particularly for people who, for whatever reason—not necessarily to do with how bright they are—find school slightly more challenging.

Experience of the working world also prepares children to go on to the next stage. I am a mother of four children, and all four worked weekend jobs when they could, and certainly during the holidays. That gave them invaluable experience, because the errors they made will have stood them in very good stead when they went to university or into a job after leaving school.

My right hon. Friend is quite right that the glue around that is the provision of careers advice. Ever since I was at school, which was a very long time ago, I do not think we have got that right. The careers strategy that we published last year is a step in exactly the right direction. It is not necessarily particularly tidy, but the way to reach young people these days is not simply an hour-long lesson with a careers teacher; it has to be much more than that. At the end of the previous Parliament, he was responsible for changes to the Bill that meant that providers of technical education and of apprenticeships must be allowed into schools, which opens young people’s eyes to other possibilities.

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A difficulty in my constituency is that the sixth-form colleges do apprenticeships and skills training very well but ordinary schools do not; they are still wedded to an academic view of life. Does my right hon. Friend share my view?

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Yes. My hon. Friend mentioned an organisation in his constituency and its apprenticeship hub, and I commend that local initiative. I have seen something similar down in Gosport that showed an absolutely groundbreaking attitude. He is right that careers advice in schools has traditionally not always been very good.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for what she said. She mentioned the legislation ensuring that schools have to invite apprenticeship organisations and university technical colleges into schools and further education colleges. What is she doing to enforce that? There are suggestions—and there have been a number of reports—that schools are not actually implementing the legislation.

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I am very mindful of that, which is why I have frequent meetings—I think weekly or every other week; certainly once a month—with the careers team in the Department for Education. The need to do this was introduced only in January, so we are in quite early days, but I will watch this, because the proof of the pudding will be in whether it actually happens.

My right hon. Friend rightly pointed out that teachers could do with some of this advice, because a classroom teacher might have left school, gone to university and got their degree, done their teaching qualification in whatever way they wanted, and never experienced the world of work outside the institutional school environment, and that experience is critical. I suggested that to a number of careers professionals the other day. It would be really worthwhile, particularly in the local economy, so that teachers understand the needs of local businesses and can tailor their whole approach to them. A career is what someone does after school, and that should be the thread that runs through everything they do within school. Otherwise, if someone is like I was at school, they will say, “What’s the point of all this?” That is absolutely critical.

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I will not hold the Minister back for long. In my intervention on the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), I suggested perhaps looking at the Northern Ireland system, where education and IT skills are coming together. I wonder whether the Minister has had a chance to consider that.

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The hon. Gentleman is right; the Government should not be too proud to learn from anywhere that is doing well. We have set off on a course, but it is not restricted and I will pick up on anything that makes this process work.

We have seen good progress, certainly on raising the quality of apprenticeships. We have gone from 3% of apprenticeships on standards up to 36%, which is well beyond what we expected. We are making progress. The opening up of degree apprenticeships is critical, and my right hon. Friend is right that it will help achieve that parity of esteem for apprenticeships. I think we will start to see a huge tide of degree apprenticeships coming forward, because employers will get not only people with the required academic qualifications, but people with the skills. For a young person leaving school, of course, it is a no-brainer; they are getting paid, they are getting a qualification and they will have no student debt. What is not to like about that?

Achieving that parity of esteem is important. My right hon. Friend talked about a holistic education, which is so important. There is a wonderful scheme in my patch—I was with it on Friday—whereby one of the independent schools provides a year’s worth of stringed instrument teaching to year 3 pupils. It is funded by the local community foundation. Royal Grammar School Guildford has been really supportive. That increases young people’s knowledge of things. They will not necessarily all go on to learn an instrument, but it widens and broadens their experience, so they will think of other things, and that will filter through everything they do.

Work experience is important because, as my right hon. Friend rightly said, we must be careful not to draw a sharp distinction between technical and academic education, with pupils feeling that they have to choose between one or the other. The two must be interwoven, and degree apprenticeships are a way of doing that, whether at age 18, 19, 20 or whatever point. He talked about that as a ladder of progression, but I sometimes see it as a path, because a lot of the apprentices I have met have maybe done one or two level 2 apprenticeships, trying to find out which way they want to go and which is the best career option for them, while at the same time improving their skills and aptitude, and their ability to understand the knowledges and behaviours needed within the general workplace, rather than in one specific workplace.

I share, with a passion, my right hon. Friend’s view that we need to do this for the economy of the country, because employers are desperate for the skills. Employers now have the means to employ apprentices—those paying the levy and, soon, those not paying the levy. The means are there. What matters now is that we make the system work, because for me, as for him, it is a matter of social justice.

Question put and agreed to.