HC Deb 01 July 2004 vol 423 cc429-30
8. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con)

What recent meetings he has had with employers to discuss vocational education. [181600]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke)

I regularly meet the CBI, the TUC and educationists to discuss skills and vocational education. Jointly with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, I chair the Skills Alliance, which brings those organisations together with the Small Business Service and the relevant Departments.

Mr. Amess

That might be all well and good but, after more than seven long years of this wretched Government, surely the Secretary of State understands that we lag way behind other European countries, especially France and Germany, in the numbers of youngsters with apprenticeship; and vocational qualifications. The Government love setting targets: when will the Secretary of State set a target on this matter, and when would he expect to reach it?

Mr. Clarke

I am delighted that consensus across the House is breaking out on this key question, as manifested by that contribution. The number of modern apprenticeships has tripled since this Government came to office and the Government the hon. Gentleman supported left office. We are widening apprenticeships across a variety of sectors of industry. The traditional areas are construction and engineering, but we are making modern apprenticeships much more widely available. We are integrating them into the 14 to 16 age range, so that students can begin the work earlier, and we are also linking them into our foundation degrees as part of a coherent, positive and strong programme.

However, I concede that the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) has a point. As I have said publicly on many occasions, we lag behind many of our competitor countries—not just France and Germany—in relation to stay-on rates at 16 plus. That is why we have the programme, why we have built consensus around it, and why we have targets to achieve it.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Reading borough council has applied for academy status for Thamesbridge college, in partnership with the local business community? The aim is to give the college, and its staff and students, a positive future, and to provide enhanced opportunities for vocational training to meet the needs of employers and the very successful local economy of Reading and the Thames valley.

Mr. Clarke

I am aware of that, and I am glad that my hon. Friend raised the subject and is supporting that initiative. It allows me to make the point that our exciting new schools programmes, whether for specialist schools or city academies, are path-breaking on the academic-vocational question, and recognise the need to invest and give students real choice about what they will focus on in their future lives.