At the outset, on behalf of all on the Government Benches, may I briefly echo the Prime Minister’s words on the passing of Dame Tessa Jowell? She gave a lifetime of tireless public service, and displayed incredible bravery and dignity in the final months. I know that there will be an opportunity shortly for colleagues throughout the House to pay tributes.
Since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, there have been 242,100 apprenticeship starts and we have seen a marked shift to higher-quality, longer and higher-level apprenticeships.
Employers and providers of apprenticeships, including in my constituency, are concerned that the approvals process for apprenticeship standards is far too slow and bureaucratic. That follows the news that the Institute for Apprenticeships cleared only four standards in April and 10 in March—that is actually down from 21 in February. What extra resources will the Secretary of State give the IFA to address those genuine concerns?
The hon. Gentleman’s constituency has leading apprenticeship employers, including Centrica, Mars and Telefónica-O2, and they play a leading role in showing what it is possible to do with apprenticeships. The IFA has brought forward a programme called “Faster and Better” to make sure that standards are approved more quickly, and we have seen the number of apprenticeship starts on standards rising sharply. We continue to monitor that.
Last year, the Government set a target of 2.3% of the workforce for public bodies on employing apprentices, yet following a series of parliamentary questions by the shadow Education team we have discovered that the vast majority of Departments, including the Department for Education, are failing to hit that target. If the Department is unable to meet such targets internally, how are we supposed to believe that it is going to meet the 3 million target by 2020?
The hon. Lady is right to identify the important role that the public sector plays and to say that we have to try additionally hard. She mentioned my Department, and we have opportunities for training assistants and graduates through the teaching apprenticeship.
The Government say that they want 3 million new apprentices by 2020, but all the signs are that we are going in the wrong direction. Last year there were 70 fewer apprentice starts in my constituency than the year before, and nationally starts are down by 23%. Can the Minister tell us why that is? Do the Government agree with the British Chambers of Commerce that the apprenticeship levy is “unfit for purpose”?
The apprenticeship levy is an important structural reform to the way we do training provision in this country, to make sure that all sizeable firms are contributing to upskilling the nation. We are in a period of change, and some employers are taking longer to bed down what they are going to do with their apprenticeship levy money. We must bear in mind that they have two years to do that with each month’s money, but we are seeing a shift to longer, higher-quality apprenticeships, and that trend is to be welcomed.
I know that my right hon. Friend is committed to helping more disadvantaged apprentices. The Conservative manifesto said:
“We will introduce significantly discounted bus and train travel for apprentices to ensure that no young person is deterred from an apprenticeship due to travel costs.”
Will he confirm that that is still a commitment? When will it happen?
My right hon. Friend rightly identifies the importance of making sure that apprenticeships are fully inclusive, and we continue to look at ensuring that such facilitation is available.
What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that more women are taking up apprenticeships in science, technology and manufacturing?
My right hon. Friend is right to identify the challenge that we have in STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths. That goes for apprenticeships and for other parts of the education and training system, as well as employment. It is partly about encouraging girls through programmes such as “Girls Get Coding”. We are taking part in the Year of Engineering, and we continue to support improvements in gender representation through our diversity champions network.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that raising the quality of apprenticeships is just as important as raising the numbers, and that there is evidence that good progress is being made in this area?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. In reforming apprenticeships, we looked around the world to see what the standards were in leading nations such as Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Having a lengthy apprenticeship with a significant off-the-job training element is very important.
Has the Secretary of State looked at the impact of cuts in further education on apprenticeships, particularly in Coventry?
Of course, through the apprenticeship levy, the funding available for apprenticeships will be roughly twice what it was at the start of the decade, and further education colleges are among those that can bid for that funding and benefit from it.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) about funding for the levy, is it not right that the levy is an important part of the reforms in this policy area and will ensure that there is long-term investment in apprenticeship training?
That is absolutely right. As I said earlier, the levy ensures that all sizeable firms contribute to the upskilling of the nation. It is an employer-led system to make sure that the apprenticeships that are done are those demanded by employers.
May I echo the Secretary of State’s words regarding our friend, the late Dame Tessa Jowell? I think in particular of her role in the founding of Sure Start centres, not just as the shadow Secretary of State for Education but because when I was a young mum it was the local Sure Start centre that really helped me and my son. For all that is said and done in this Chamber, that is the best that any Member can hope to have achieved.
Last week, Ministers told us that nursing apprenticeships were the answer to NHS staff shortages. They set a target of 1,000 nursing apprentices, but just 30 have actually started training. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many will start this year?
Apprenticeships are an important opportunity in the national health service, and we continue to work with the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care on them. Of course, in the health service, as throughout society and the economy, apprenticeships are employer-led programmes, so the health service takes the lead.