My Lords, I, too, would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Monks, for tabling this debate and to commend him on his excellent speech. This is an important subject. It is essential that we discuss the alternatives for young people who do not attend university, and even more important that young people not attending university are themselves aware of these alternatives.
Our vocational qualifications system has grown too complicated, bureaucratic and hard to understand. I personally am a big supporter of apprenticeships and that is why I want to focus particularly on this subject today. I welcome the fact that this Government have overseen the biggest ever boost to apprenticeships. My party has also committed to delivering 3 million more apprenticeships over the next Parliament. The Government have made huge headway since they came to power in raising the status of apprenticeships so that young people leaving school view an apprenticeship and going to university as having equal merit. That is long overdue.
The role of government should be to provide people with the foundations that they need to better themselves. It should not favour one path over another, but provide the equality of opportunity that means that people can go on to do what they want to do and do it well, knowing that as long as they work hard and do the right thing the Government are firmly on their side.
An important step in advancing the standing of apprenticeships has been the move to pay apprenticeships a national minimum wage. Apprentices are paid from the first day of their apprenticeship. For those for whom university is not suitable, I am sure that the prospect of earning while working and learning is a very inviting one. What is also important to recognise is that when securing an apprenticeship many young people get themselves a job for life. There is a vast number of examples of people who have started working for a company as an apprentice and worked their way up throughout their career. That gives a boost not only to young people, who know that their employer can offer them career progression, but to employers, who can only benefit from having people at the top of their companies who have first-hand experience of all areas of their business.
I am pleased to see that apprenticeships are becoming increasingly popular with 16 to 17 year-olds, with 15% more of them in apprenticeships compared to last year. Schools are legally required to secure independent careers guidance for 12 to 18 year-olds that includes information on the full range of education and training options, including apprenticeships. However, in 2013, Ofsted’s study of the early implementation of that duty found that apprenticeships were rarely promoted effectively, especially in schools with sixth forms. I fear that this may have more to do with finance than it does with education. The fact is that schools get in the region of £5,000 for each pupil that they keep on post 16, so they may not want to lose them. I encourage the Government to look into this and find out what is the best way around it, because without doing so there is concern that apprenticeships, skills and our young people will always be held back.
Apprenticeships are critical to tackling the skills gap that exists in Britain, which has held Britain back in its export and manufacturing capabilities. We need to expand our manufacturing base: manufacturing should be as important as my own business, that of financial services. We are still massively underperforming as a nation, with the UK ranked 23rd in the world for manufacturing output per head and 114th in the world for manufacturing output as a share of GDP. We must put employers in the driving seat to create new apprenticeship standards that will deliver the skills and businesses we need to compete. The Government must do all they can to make apprenticeships more responsive to employers’ needs and help to raise standards. I welcome the fact that measures are being brought forward which will give English apprenticeship funding directly to employers, following a recommendation from the independent Richard review.
Apprenticeships do not help only young people, they help the country and the wider economy. The National Audit Office estimates that for every £1 invested by the Government in an apprenticeship, the economy gets between £18 and £28 back. Employers are getting involved in the design of apprenticeships to make sure that people gain the skills they need for a job. Apprenticeships provide young people with much needed experience that often leads to a full-time job, bringing real value to the businesses that take them on and motivating these individuals to gain skills and qualifications. High-quality, rigorous vocational education is essential to our future prosperity and to improving the life chances of millions of young people.