HL Deb 11 February 2004 vol 656 cc1095-8

2.43 p.m.

Baroness Perry of Southwark asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they will take to reverse the decline in the proportion of 16 and 17 year-olds choosing vocational courses.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, official participation statistics for 16 to 17 year-olds show a rise of 1.1 percentage points in the proportion studying vocational courses in 2002–03 to 27.9 per cent. Our 14-to-19 strategy will give young people more freedom to follow programmes that meet their individual needs. Key to this will be the impartial advice and information offered. To widen choice, we are strengthening vocational and work-related opportunities, including new GCSE and A-Level subjects, together with improved modern apprenticeships.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, although I welcome the very small increase in this past year that the Minister has just named, that nevertheless is a drop from 42 per cent following the vocational route before the introduction of Curriculum 2000. Do the Government realise that they cannot get this wrong? They simply cannot go on playing around with the curriculum when we are suffering from what the British Chambers of Commerce describes as a, crippling UK skills shortage, which places a brick wall in front of a business wanting to raise productivity and expand. We simply cannot afford to allow this to continue. I hope that the Minister will consider telling us today that the Government are considering abandoning the failing vocational A-level, the advanced vocational certificate, which lacks properly qualified teachers to teach it, and which is proving unattractive to students. Can we not restore the GNVQ, which was popular? Is there not also a lesson to be learned from the continuing proportion taking well established qualifications such as the BTEC, and the City and Guilds, which both students and employers understand and respect?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I take issue with the noble Baroness on what she considers to be the failing A-level courses. We have, as the noble Baroness will acknowledge, a 14-to-19 strategy. It is, as the noble Baroness would say, based on a recognition that we must do as much as we possibly can to ensure that we have the correct and appropriate skills to support our industry and our economy and that as many of our young people who would benefit from staying on at school have the opportunity to do so, whether that involves pursuing an academic or vocational route, or a mixture of the two. The work that Mike Tomlinson is doing will support that, and I hope that the noble Baroness will also do so.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, given the outstanding success of vocational training in Germany, going back to the days of Otto von Bismarck, and now, through various types of institution, providing vocational training of the highest quality to about two thirds of German teenagers, are the Government studying models such as the Fachoberschulen and taking note of the part-time Berufsschulen, which underpin the experience of those already in the workplace whether it be hospital, bank, office or factory?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Lord is right: two thirds of young people pursue what I believe is known as a dual-system apprenticeship, a combination of on-the-job training with one or two days per week at college. Indeed, all of these interesting models are being looked at by Mike Tomlinson in his review of the 14-to-19 strategy. The system in Germany has had a good record of productivity, but issues are being investigated such as the rapidly changing needs in terms of skills, as well as the declining number of apprenticeships available in Germany. None the less, we are looking at these models.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that some young people who occasionally have kicked the dust of school off their heels, but who have very good practical skills, are far better off in a college of further education than either staying at school or going to university? In fact, that is much more likely to lead to a well paid job that uses those skills.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, there is much in what the noble Baroness says, but it is not an "either/or"; it is a "both/and". The opportunities for our young people to study in different settings or institutions in order to get the best that they can are important. That is at the heart of the 14-to-19 strategy.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, does the Minister think that there is a danger that the enormous pressure to succeed at A-level in the academic stream encourages schools to be selective as to their sixth-form entry and is therefore not very conducive to encouraging children to stay on for a less academic future, which nevertheless involves further education?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the partnerships that are now under way between schools and further education colleges are a good way of demonstrating that link between wanting young people to be able to focus on an academic and/or a vocational setting with the appropriateness of the skills that they want to acquire and are capable of acquiring in some circumstances. The kind of vocational A-levels that schools are now offering include business, health and social care and manufacturing science. Many schools are now beginning to look at the potential to offer these either in partnership with each other, or in partnership with FE colleges.

We have to be careful about assuming that there is one category of young people who fit into one setting and another category who fit into another setting. It is about a plurality of settings and the ability of young people to move freely and easily in order to obtain the best that they can from education.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, is not the simple truth that some of us have a fundamental disagreement with government policy on this issue? Far too many young people are being lured into higher education with the promise of work that very often does not exist. Has my noble friend not heard the complaints of employers who are running modern apprenticeship programmes? They say that they can no longer get the high-quality trainees that they got in the old days when, as far as I am concerned, the system was far better?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am not sure that I can possibly agree with my noble friend that young people are being lured into higher education. That is not something that I recognise. It is absolutely clear—I think the House is united on this—that we want to ensure that all our young people have the opportunity to benefit from an education system appropriate to their skills and needs, which prepares them for employment and life in the future.

What we argue about is the means to that end. It is my firm belief that the way to do this is to have flexibility in a system that recognises children do not come in boxes marked "vocational", "academic" or anything else. They have different skills and needs. We are trying to ensure that, through whatever means, all young people capable of getting the best from education at a further or higher level get that chance. That is a noble aspiration.

Lord Dearing

My Lords, in her reply the Minister referred to modern apprenticeships. I am one of those people who warmly welcome the progress now being made to increase the number of people taking modern apprenticeships. I also welcome what I hear about the Government's thinking on introducing a pre-apprenticeship stage—key stage 4. Perhaps I may ask the Minister to confirm what I think she said in her initial Answer. Do the Government intend to learn the lessons of the past? Will they ensure that the longer-term reforms for 14 to 19 year-olds recognise that when devising the new diplomas there will be real recognition of the distinctive learning needs of the modern apprenticeship?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

Indeed, my Lords. I could not agree more with the noble Lord. I pay tribute to the work that he does. We are of course reflecting on all the lessons that can be learned. We expect the working group on 14-to-19 reform to relate to what has happened with modern apprenticeships and to reflect on how best we can take them forward.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, the Government set up the Learning and Skills Council in order to make progress in that area. Can the Minister give us any information about its success?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am not entirely certain that I heard the noble Baroness correctly. Was she referring to the Learning and Skills Council?

Baroness Hooper

Indeed, my Lords.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, there are 47 learning and skills councils operating across the country. Their role is to look at education and training in conjunction with their education authorities for the older age group. I would be very happy to put a note in the Library of the House, and to write to the noble Baroness with more details about that. I am conscious of time.