HC Deb 12 February 2004 vol 417 cc1547-9
1. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con)

What recent representations he has received on the number of apprenticeships available for trainee plumbers. [1154510]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis)

I have had a small amount of correspondence on this issue, mostly in respect of young people in some areas having difficulty in finding employer placements, particularly with very small businesses. In response, the Learning and Skills Council is working with employers and colleges to expand training provision and the placements available. Plumbing is proving popular, with 7,000 on modern apprenticeships and 30,000 on college courses.

Miss McIntosh

Many apprenticeships are available, but there is a lack of information about the host of organisations to which young people can apply. The son of one of my constituents was keen to enter a plumbing apprenticeship but was advised to obtain a waiter's position at Betty's—a popular tea room in north Yorkshire but not the best placement for a plumbing apprentice. Can the Minister give an assurance that all the agencies involved—the Employment Service, county councils and learning and skills councils—will place in the public domain information on where apprenticeships are available?

Mr. Lewis

I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. I refer her to the work of the Modern Apprenticeship Task Force, which comprises many large employers and is chaired by Sir Roy Gardner, and the Government will announce in the next few weeks a major upgrading of our commitment to apprenticeships—with a particular emphasis on employer engagement. We are committed at local level to making it clear that modern apprenticeships are a high quality, high status route. I celebrate the fact that 230,000 young people—a record number—are undertaking modern apprenticeships this year and we intend to increase that number significantly.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)

Does my hon. Friend agree that modern apprenticeships are in a bit of a mess and that it is time the Government got a real handle on them? Whether one is talking about plumbing or any other sector, too many people have got their fingers in the pie. What sort of qualification is offered? Will the standard be the same throughout the country? Will the qualifications mean something and he transportable, with all employers recognising their value?

Mr. Lewis

I thank my hon. Friend for displaying with particular clarity his independence in his role as Chairman of the Education and Skills Select Committee. I do not accept that modern apprenticeships are in a mess but many changes lie ahead, including improving completion rates and the introduction of apprenticeships for 14 to 16-year-olds—the details of which I will announce soon.

Many organisations across industry welcome our intention to lift the age cap and introduce adult apprenticeships. In a global economy where the job for life is dead, it is vital to give people hope and support by ensuring that adults can retrain, upskill and change career direction. Adult apprenticeships will also be an important part of our programme.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD)

Does the Minister agree that there is a tendency when talking about plumbers to mean people who are not capable of high academic achievement? Evidence from pathfinder projects for 14 to 19-year-olds shows that the majority of participants—particularly those age 14 to 16—will not get five good or very good GCSEs. Does the Minister agree that that group should he targeted? Will the Government tell all students at age 14 that a vocational route is of equal worth?

Mr. Lewis

I agree entirely. We await Mike Tomlinson's interim report with great interest. Central to the credibility of the Tomlinson process will be a capacity to identify for the first time in generations a high status, high quality vocational route. The false choice often posed, as between higher education and vocational education, is damaging and dangerous. We want to make it clear to young people that they can go from a high status vocational route into higher education or go the mixed academic and vocational route—which can also lead to higher education when one is young or later in life. Those who offer that false choice prove why vocational education has often failed.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab)

Will my hon. Friend say more about ensuring that young people between the ages of 14 and 16 on apprenticeship schemes can link to academic studies, so that there is a clear connection between vocational and academic work? How will the learning and skills councils fit in?

Mr. Lewis

It is important to support progression for young people and to create not cul-de-sacs but a climbing frame. There is no reason for a young person not choosing at 16 to go down the academic route to return to a modern apprenticeship and continue in education. The great challenge facing this country is to develop an education programme that supports young people in their motivation to continue learning, to achieve and to be successful, not to drop out of education at 17.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness)

Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Chairman of the Select Committee, does the Minister accept that modern apprenticeships in plumbing and other sectors are, to put it politely, in need of attention? Take-up targets are likely to be missed, drop-out rates in some sectors are up to 75 per cent., and up to two thirds of entrants lack the supposed entry requirement of level 2 skill qualifications. What measures is the Minister taking to correct those failings before he expands modern apprenticeships to pre-16 and post-28?

Mr. Lewis

In the hon. Gentleman's desire to turn this into a party political bunfight, we should not the get the facts wrong. We are very much on the way to meeting our target for the number of young people we want to get into apprenticeships next year, and we have record numbers now, so the idea that we are struggling to get young people in and missing our targets is complete nonsense.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that we face a challenge in improving completion rates in apprenticeships and raising the quality of apprenticeships. However, let me cite the example of plumbing completion rates. For advanced modern apprenticeships, the success rate rose from 28 per cent. in 2001–02 to 42 per cent. in 2002–03; for foundation modern apprenticeships, it rose from 29 per cent. to 42 per cent. over the same period—up 13 per cent. The Government accept that improving completion rates is a major challenge, but let us build on success, not denigrate those young people's achievements.