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Education, Employment and Training: Young People

Volume 737: debated on Monday 4 September 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Joy Morrissey.)

It is a huge pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Speaker, and thank you very much for granting this debate. It is now midnight, and I am not sure that I have ever had the privilege of addressing the House at such an early hour, but it is always a privilege to stand up and speak out on behalf of my constituents.

I welcome my right hon. Friend, and good friend, the Minister to his place. He has been devoted to promoting both his constituency of Harlow and educational opportunity ever since he came to the House, not least through his previous superb chairmanship of the Education Committee. Now in his second iteration as Minister for Skills, he stands out as a Minister who is very much a round peg in a round hole, and we are lucky to have him.

Education, employment and training for young people is a hugely important issue for both our country and local residents in the constituency that I have the huge privilege of representing. I was alarmed to discover recently that some 788,000 16 to 24-year-olds are not in education, employment or training—which seems to me to be a very large number—and that although the overall unemployment rate in my constituency, at 3.6%, is below the national average of 3.7%, 420 18 to 24-year-olds are without work and the youth unemployment rate is 6.2%, while the national average is 4.7%.

Those young people who are not in education, employment or training are frequently referred to as NEETs. I was alarmed to be informed that 57% of NEETs are young people who have previously been in some form of care setting, and that many of these young people will also have left their school or college without gaining GCSE qualifications at level 5 or above in the basics of English and maths. Those are uncomfortable and disappointing statistics, and as a country we can and must do better if we are to give all our young people a good start to their adult lives.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He has always brought good subjects to the House, and tonight, after midnight, he is doing so again. It will be known throughout the House that I am a keen supporter of apprenticeship programmes for young people, which provide an excellent opportunity for those who want to take up a trade and go straight into the world of work, as opposed to further study at university. South Eastern Regional College—SERC—in my town of Newtownards does a fantastic job in supporting young people through that transition. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that more needs to be done to ensure that apprentices are paid equally and fairly, and that the best way we can show that their work and contribution to society are valued is to give them money for what they do by the sweat of their brow?

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. The Government are doing good work with A-levels, T-levels and apprenticeships, but 788,000 young people are falling through the net. The purpose of this debate is to highlight that number and encourage the Minister to tell the House what the Government are going to do about it.

Young people in this country should be encouraged to be in good-quality education, training or employment and to enjoy the right to fulfil their potential, whatever and wherever that may be. The good news for Kettering is that we are fortunate enough to have—based in Station Road, near the heart of the town centre and the railway station itself—a wonderful organisation called Youth Employment UK, which was established and is led by its enthusiastic, talented and inspirational chief executive, Laura-Jane Rawlings, known to all as “LJ”. She is ably assisted by Joshua Knight, the senior policy and research lead, and a hard-working staff of 14.

Youth Employment UK is a national, not-for-profit organisation that was set up in 2012 with a focus on tackling youth unemployment. Funded not by the taxpayer but by an expanding membership of enlightened employers, in the last 10 years it has become one of the leading experts on youth employment, and an active partner to Departments including the Departments for Education and for Work and Pensions.

Last Thursday, 31 August, I met the Youth Employment UK team at their Kettering HQ, together with Robin Webber-Jones, the Northamptonshire principal of Tresham College, which is part of the Bedford College Group, and Councillor Scott Edwards, the portfolio holder for education at North Northamptonshire Council, to explore how the promotion of youth employment, education and training might best be advanced at both national and local levels. From that meeting, it was clear to see Youth Employment UK’s expertise and commitment to all young people across the UK, and I commend Youth Employment UK to the Minister.

In this debate, I have four asks of the Minister, please. First, will he be kind enough to visit Kettering to meet me and representatives of Youth Employment UK, Tresham College and North Northamptonshire Council to discuss the local and national challenges of youth education, employment and training? Secondly, will he ensure that while the Government raise the ambitions for young people to achieve A-levels, T-levels and quality apprenticeships—which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has just highlighted—groups of young people are not left behind? Thirdly, will he expand ambitions and support for young people and create a NEET strategy with a commitment to reducing the NEET rate—a strategy that must focus on both reduction and prevention? Fourthly, will he commit to ensuring that all employers are working to the good youth employment standards, driving up the quality and volume of job opportunities for young people?

Youth Employment UK is home to the national youth voice census, an annual survey that explores with young people aged 11 to 30 what is and is not working for them on their journey to work. I know that the Department for Education already welcomes this annual survey and is already using it as a tool to help shape and inform its policy work. The 2022 report was downloaded more than 70,000 times. It has been referenced in a number of Government reports and received local, national and international coverage. On 14 September, in just 10 days’ time—nine days’ time now—Youth Employment UK will launch this year’s findings, and as I have been privy to some early insight from the team, I can give the Minister a sneak peek into some of its findings. This year’s survey makes it clear that in 2023, young people need more support and more help from the systems around them. Young people across the UK have shared their lack of confidence about their futures and next steps, telling Youth Employment UK in their thousands about the disconnect they feel in their communities. The future is feeling more uncertain for young people than in many previous years.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important debate. The subject of skills development and the improvement of people within employment is close to my own heart. Does he recognise that there is a disparity in how this policy plays out across the whole of the United Kingdom? For example, the apprenticeship levy is collected in Northern Ireland but it is not allocated to apprenticeships there, so we are taxed but the levy is not available. Secondly, we export one third of all our students in Northern Ireland to GB, but they rarely come back. That has to be fixed.

The hon. Member makes some extremely good points. It does not seem right that the situation he describes should be as it is. Perhaps the Minister, in his response, will be able to give the Government’s response to those important issues. I shall be in touch with representatives of Youth Employment UK, who will be interested in Northern Ireland, and I will ask if they would be kind enough to contact the hon. Member’s office to see whether this could be explored further.

The key findings and recommendations from this year’s youth voice census will provide us all with a clearer understanding of the issues that young people are facing in our constituencies, in our schools and as they enter the workforce. This should be a call to all of us, and in particular to the Government, to make a commitment to understanding what young people really need in order to feel confident about their futures.

The Government’s plan for education is a strong one, streamlining qualifications and ensuring parity of esteem between vocational pathways and university. In order to support future-ready young people who have the skills required to build our future workforce, we have to hear the voice and expertise of all types of employers and more varied groups of young people.

Individual circumstances will likely be the biggest factor in a successful next-step transition and, of course, not all young people have the same starting point. Pathways and programmes must be designed to be accessible and flexible enough to benefit all young people. We therefore must be sure, at both national and local level, that young people will not be left behind by any education reform plans.

I am delighted that Youth Employment UK is leading a commission on the reforms that have been introduced and will be case-studying a number of local areas, including Kettering, to see what the reality of education reform means for young people and their personal situations and aspirations. I hope these case studies, when published, will be a useful moment for my right hon. Friend the Minister to assure us that there are ladders of opportunity available to every young person, everywhere.

While my right hon. Friend is developing future education and training pathways, I hope he will have a particularly keen eye on the actions required to support those 788,000 young people who are currently NEET. Through its work as the secretariat to the all-party parliamentary group on youth employment, Youth Employment UK is stressing the need for the Government to make a guarantee to young people that there will always be a quality opportunity for them and that the Government will level up the systems around supporting and promoting young people.

In its 2022 report, produced with PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Youth Futures Foundation, which is a beneficiary of dormant assets funding, identified that bringing our NEET rate down to that of our German friends would benefit UK GDP by as much as £38 billion. It must therefore be a matter of utmost importance to the Government that we have a NEET strategy focused not only on reduction, but on prevention too.

I am delighted to advise my right hon. Friend that Youth Employment UK was commissioned by the Careers & Enterprise Company to write a paper on NEET prevention and reduction, and that the paper and its recommendations are available to the Department for Education. In addition, Youth Employment UK has co-produced a young person’s guarantee along with the Prince’s Trust, the Youth Futures Foundation, the Institute for Employment Studies, Impetus and the Learning and Work Institute as co-chairs of the Youth Employment Group, which will be sure to add value to the DFE and other Government Departments in their efforts to tackle youth unemployment.

Over the last 10 years, Youth Employment UK has been providing free skills and careers information to young people aged 11 to 30. Its superb website, which I have seen and which I encourage my right hon. Friend to view for himself, is an encyclopaedia of information, inspiration and advice for young people. I was impressed to see on my visit to Youth Employment UK’s headquarters that the website is powered by young people themselves, as Youth Employment UK is an excellent employer of young apprentices. The website helps more than 200,000 young people a month, or 2.4 million a year, to understand all their options and pathways, and how to navigate and prepare for the world around them as it changes. I am sure my right hon. Friend will join me in congratulating Youth Employment UK on this valuable work.

Instrumental to the role that Youth Employment UK plays is its work with employers. Employers are key to tackling youth unemployment and to creating the experiences and opportunities that young people need to move on in the world with confidence. By understanding young people, Youth Employment UK is able to advise and support employers to create quality and inclusive opportunities for young people. Youth Employment UK has created the good youth employment standards and has more than 1,000 employers in its membership that are leading the way in driving up good youth employment standards and opportunities.

Employers such as Coca-Cola Europacific Partners, Pret a Manger, Sodexo, Haven, Severn Trent and Surrey County Council are among the many working with Youth Employment UK and investing in apprenticeships, T-levels and inclusive recruitment for young people. As passionate as my right hon. Friend is about T-levels and their placements and apprenticeships for young people, I am sure he will agree that we need more employers to provide opportunities at a national, local and hyper-local level. I hope he will join the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, the Department for Work and Pensions, and these more than 1,000 employers in recognising the importance of the good youth employment standards and the work that Youth Employment UK does to drive quality and to connect young people to good employers.

In closing, let me reiterate my four asks. Will my right hon. Friend be kind enough to visit Kettering? Will he ensure that while the Government promote A-levels, T-levels and quality apprenticeships, groups of young people are not left behind? Will he create a strategy to reduce the number of young people being or becoming NEETs, and to prevent it from happening? Will he ensure that all employers are working to the good youth employment standards? Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your indulgence at this early hour. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I heartily congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), a real friend whom I have known for many years, on securing the debate. Not only is he passionate about his constituency, but as he has shown in his speech, he is passionate and knowledgeable about youth employment, skills, apprenticeships and much more besides. It is an honour for me to be able to respond to him in this debate. He is also a member of the all-party group on youth employment, and he wants young people to acquire the education and skills they need in Kettering. He is absolutely right about that, and he wrote to me about it before the summer. I welcome the debate, because I share that passion.

Let me answer the first of his points by saying that I will be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s local college and meet Youth Employment UK, perhaps at the college. His second request was about careers advice and support. Everything we are trying to do is to ensure that careers advice is central to our young people, and I will go into detail about what we are doing.

My hon. Friend’s third point was about having a strategy for young people who are not employed or in training—I dislike the terrible word “NEET”, as there is nothing neat at all about being unemployed and not in education or training. Not only are we working collaboratively with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), and the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), in a cross-government youth forum, but we have a strategy in the Department.

I was over the moon when my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering mentioned the “ladder of opportunity”. Everybody who knows me knows that I talk about that all the time, and that ladder has a real strategy to it; it is not just a slogan. One pillar supporting that ladder is about strengthening higher education and further education, and the other is about opportunities and social justice. The first rung of that ladder is careers; the second is quality qualifications; the third is championing apprenticeships and skills; the fourth is lifelong learning; and the fifth is job security and prosperity. That last one is the goal for everyone to get to at the top of that ladder. Our Government bring people to the ladder and help them climb up every step of the way. That is the strategy, and there is a lot of detail to each part of the ladder.

My hon. Friend’s fourth request was about the good employer standards. I have worked previously with the Investors in People, which looks at employers who encourage apprentices and skills. I have been looking at the brilliant website of Youth Employment UK; as he rightly mentions, it is a Wikipedia of everything there is to know about youth employment. I will look at what it says and at the work of IIP to see whether there can be any collaboration there and with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

It is important to note that nationally the NEET figures for young people—16 to 24-year-olds—in England have been lower for several years. At the end of 2022, the rate was 12.3%; it is down by nearly a quarter since 2010. My hon. Friend has shared concerns about the slightly higher than average youth unemployment rate in his area among 18 to 24-year-olds, but there is some good news: just 2.6% of 16 and 17-year-olds in the wider north Northamptonshire area, covering his constituency, are not in employment or training, and that is well below the national average of 5.2%. Nationally, age 16 and 17 not in employment or training rates are consistently lower. In 2011 the figure was 6.6%, but by the end of 2022 it was just 4.5%. However, there is still a lot more to do, as my hon. Friend rightly highlighted.

The key thing that my hon. Friend wants to know is what we are doing for young people in his area, and I am happy to provide that information. As he pointed out, the main FE provider in his constituency is Tresham College, part of the Beford College Group, which has 7,700 learners on 16 to 19 studies. It boasts a huge range of full-time, part-time, higher education and apprenticeship provision, from science to business administration, from computing to care and childcare, and it is home to the prestigious training restaurant.

There are a number of apprenticeship providers in Kettering. As an aside to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who asked about the apprenticeship levy, he will know that that is devolved to Northern Ireland. We devolve a portion of the national apprenticeship levy raised to all the devolved authorities, and it is up to the devolved authorities how they spend it. In fact, the devolved authority has more flexibility than exists in England; in England the money has to be spent on apprentices, but the devolved authorities have much wider discretion on how they spend it. I am happy to look at that and work with him on it. I hope to go to Northern Ireland soon to look at the Turing scheme operating there, so I am happy to discuss with him and his colleagues how we can make the apprenticeship system work better in Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering will be pleased to know that there have been 11,220 apprenticeship starts in Kettering since May 2010, and there were 770 last year. There are great apprentice employers for young people in his area, such as Travis Perkins, Northampton Healthcare, Mercedes and AMG High Performance Powertrains, which produces Formula 1 engines. There is the Creating Tomorrow College, a specialist post-16 institution that looks after 16 to 25-year-olds with cognition and learning difficulties. I am sure my hon. Friend is proud of that.

We are making a huge investment in post-16 education, benefiting constituents in Kettering, in my constituency of Harlow and across the country with an additional £3.8 billion over this Parliament. We are improving the FE estate to the tune of £2.8 billion. We announced a £125 million boost to further education back in January, including £12 million for the Bedford College Group. We announced even more funding for young people’s education: an extra £185 million in 2023-24, and £285 million to come in 2024-25. We invested over £7 billion during 2022, to ensure that there is a place in education or training for every 16 to 18-year-old who wants one. By 2024-25 we will be spending £2.7 billion on apprenticeships.

As I mentioned to my hon. Friend, one of the pillars supporting the ladder of opportunity is social justice. Skills education and training is fundamental to get those young people who are not in employment or training into work. I will briefly mention the three strands of social justice—place, privilege and prestige. Social justice is rooted in the places people come from—where they grow up, gain their education and find a job. We want to deliver for places that need a sustainable jobs and skills ecosystem.

There are 31 primary and six secondary schools in Kettering giving a good education to young people. There are 38 employer-led skills improvement plans across the country, working out what skills are needed in the local area. My hon. Friend’s constituency falls within the south-east midlands local skills improvement plan, bringing together employers to make sure they fill the skills deficit as we need them to. Previously, the strategic development fund awarded £1.25 million in revenue and £1.49 million in capital funding to south-east midlands colleges.

My hon. Friend talked about careers. We have the local careers hubs and we have done a lot of work on careers, ensuring that apprentice organisations go into schools. We have now legislated—I pushed this through when I was Chair of the Education Committee—to ensure that schools have to have at least six encounters with technical organisations, such as technical schools, apprentice organisations and further education colleges. The apprenticeship support and knowledge programme is going around the country encouraging young people to do apprenticeships and learn skills. My hon. Friend will be pleased to learn that in the past year, in north Northamptonshire, 8.5% of starts were taken up by those from minority backgrounds.

My hon. Friend talked about social justice quite a bit in his speech. We are investing £18 million in the supported internships programme. I worked hard to ensure that we could increase the care leaver’s bursary, which used to be £1,000. It is now £3,000. A young person who has been in care can get a bursary to encourage them to do an apprenticeship.

Prestige is incredibly important. My hon. Friend mentioned the German system. When it comes to technical and vocational education, I would love for us to have the German, Scandinavian, Austrian or Swiss education system in our country. That is what we are doing with our T-levels and our higher technical qualifications. Some 390,000 technical awards or technical certificates have been issued to students, which is an incredible achievement. Then we have T-levels at post-16. My hon. Friend talked about expanded work placements, and we have 18 T-levels coming on board from this year. We have more and more students doing our world-class T-level programme, which is designed by employers. That means that students who do them will be likely to get good jobs. It is exciting that Tresham College is delivering T-levels.

We are strengthening further education, ensuring that we are recruiting excellent FE staff. We have brilliant further education colleges up and down our country, which do not get enough mention. We have introduced teaching bursary schemes of up to £29,000. We are getting bespoke industry experts to get into FE teaching to share their skills with the next generation. We will have 21 institute of technology colleges, 12 of which have opened so far, that will transform tertiary education in our country. They are teaching T-levels, higher technical qualifications and degree apprenticeships. They are all over the country and, with this collaboration of further education and higher education, they will be the transformative institutes of the future.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Careers & Enterprise Company, which now partners with 70% of schools and colleges. In his own area, the south-east midlands careers hub engages with 26 education institutions across north Northamptonshire, including nine schools and colleges in Kettering. We know that where there is interaction with the careers hubs and the Careers & Enterprise Company we have fewer young people not in employment or training and more people learning skills, doing apprenticeships or getting good jobs, which my hon. Friend and I both want to see. I should mention that on T-levels, this year we had a pass rate of 90.5%, with 69.2% of students receiving a merit or above. From this month, 18 T-levels will be available at nearly 300 providers. We have the apprenticeship offering and the T-level offering, as well as the traditional academic offer. I mentioned that he has T-levels being delivered in his local college and more in the pipeline. Higher technical qualifications—level 4 and 5—are being introduced as well. There will be 106 higher technical qualifications available from September 2023, offering yet more choice.

I have talked quite a bit about apprentices. We have now lifted the cap for small businesses so that they can employ as many apprentices as they want. We pay employers and providers £1,000 each when they take on a 16 to 18-year-old apprentice, and cover 100% of smaller employers’ training costs for this cohort. It is our job right now to give young people the opportunities that they need so that they can climb the ladder of opportunity—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).