Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have put their names down at short notice for this debate. I was fortunate to be number one in the ballot for the QSDs following the Queen’s Speech, so the opportunity has come rather earlier than I anticipated.
Your Lordships will be aware that on 6 September 2018, there was an excellent debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare. I am very pleased to see the noble Lord taking his place in this debate today. I mention in passing that we are both playing truant from a key pre-concert rehearsal of the Parliament choir, but there are priorities. I hope that this short debate will enable the Minister to bring us up to date on developments over the past year.
It is perhaps worth recalling the degree of skills shortages across a number of sectors. For this I am indebted to the Edge Foundation. In engineering, there is a need for over 320,000 people per year with Level 3 engineering skills. In the tech industry, there are an estimated 600,000 vacancies in the UK, a figure estimated to reach a million by 2020. The UK hospitality industry is twice the size of financial services, yet it is common for there to be more than 100,000 vacancies at any one time. Lastly, there is the best known one: the NHS is reporting shortages of 100,000 staff, representing one in 11 posts.
Against this background we find that in the 2016-17 academic year the number of students taking vocational subjects at secondary school was 33,000, compared with the 521,000 who took mathematics and science. In the light of the sector figures that I have just quoted, this is a depressingly low figure for vocational subjects. A review of post-18 education and funding, by an independent panel under the chairmanship of Dr Philip Augar, published in May 2019, found that career support is still underfunded. It recommended that career support should be rolled out nationally and, most importantly, that every secondary school should be able to be part of a careers hub, that training should be available for all careers leaders. Further, a new online platform should be created to enable young people to make choices about what to study, similar to the UCAS database for academic education.
A crucial inhibition is the lack of awareness of the various non-academic routes into employment. The Department for Education found that students leaving secondary education and entering levels 4 and 5 had difficulty in navigating the options on offer. The problem is not simply one of vacancies; the figures for various sectors should disabuse us of that. Evidence was given to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee that graduates from vocational courses came ill equipped in what one witness described as “soft skills”, such as teamworking and communications.
I would like to speak briefly about the new form of qualification, the T-level, whose crucial aim is to provide an alternative to the academic route into employment provided by A-levels and reduce the stigma attached to non-academic qualification. It will consist of 15 routes, based around occupations with shared training requirements, with some routes subdivided into what are called pathways. The T-level will be equivalent to a three A-level programme and will, on average, consist of 1,800 hours studied full time over two years—around 50% more than the average 16-19 study rate programme at present. All courses will follow the same framework of five features: a technical education; industry placement for around 45 days; maths, English and digital requirements; any occupation-specific requirements, for instance a licence to practise; and any further employability enrichment and pastoral provision, which I take to mean the soft skills that I referred to, and which in the past have been seen as weak spots in careers advice.
These T-levels will be delivered by a small number of providers in 2020. I understand that the Government’s aim is to have all 15 routes introduced by September 2023. It is fair to suggest that the profession has given a cautious welcome to the T-level initiative. However, I have heard of two reservations on which I should be grateful for the Minister’s comments. The first is that it gives less flexibility to students who have second thoughts on whether their careers should lie in academic or vocational skills. The second concern of which I am aware is that there are a number of outstanding courses, currently offered by institutions such as Cambridge Technicals and BTEC, which T-levels are expected to supersede. The profession does not want to see the baby going out with the bathwater.
I will refer only briefly to apprenticeships as I am sure that several noble Lords, who I know are experts on this subject, will be able to speak with knowledge and authority. I will make just two points on the eponymous clause known as the Baker clause, which was a landmark amendment to the Technical and Further Education Act 2017. First, in 2018 a report by the House of Commons Education Committee was highly critical. The publication FE Week found that only two of the 10 large multiacademy trusts which it investigated were fully compliant with the new rules. Secondly, the committee’s recommendations were unequivocal. It said:
“We recommend that the Government, with Ofsted’s support, properly enforces the Baker clause. In its response to this report it should set out how it plans to do this, and what penalties will be imposed”.
I shall be interested to hear from the Minister what progress the Government are making in addressing this recommendation.
The speakers in this debate will, I hope, highlight the thoughts and initiatives from all quarters which are going into the careers of post-16 year-olds. Perhaps I may finish by wandering slightly off the theme of the debate. To put it starkly, for many children this is just too late. They will have entered secondary education three years previously; many will come from dysfunctional family backgrounds and be quite unsuited to academic education. There will be the usual temptations to follow the sadly well-trod paths into truancy, drug addiction, gangs and knife crime. The message to government should, I suggest, be that it is never too early to make provision at secondary school level for an introduction to—for want of a better word—the workbench; and the chance to take the first steps in learning a trade which for many of these young people could prove to be a life-changer.
I thank your Lordships who are participating in this debate and will be grateful to hear the Minister’s comments.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, on enabling this debate on such a vital issue. I do that as a fellow cyclist; I am impressed by his two-wheel activities.
As part of our understandable desire to ensure what has been described as the knowledge economy, the aim is that 50% of the 18 to 30 year-old population should go to university. There is nothing wrong with that as an ambition. If one takes into account the nature of the fourth industrial revolution, it is probably a laudable ambition—laudable in terms of social mobility as well. Unfortunately, thanks to the law of unintended consequences, this policy has created the view that vocational education is a second-class route.
Despite the Baker amendment referred to by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, the majority of secondary schools still encourage their 16 year-olds to focus on the academic route. Alternative career paths are seen as an afterthought. That is doubly unfortunate because the academic route is unsuitable for many pupils; it may be suitable later on but, at that point in their lives, it is unsuitable. In addition, we desperately need the skills which require vocational education. Look at the demographics of the construction, engineering and tech industries—the statistics were given by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, and so I have no need to repeat them. Young people, teachers and parents need to recognise that these are worthwhile career paths. That is not what we are seeing at the moment. If you look at the demographics and at the number of vacancies, you will see that these skills are desperately needed by our economy if we want to improve productivity and, dare I say it, face the challenge of apprenticeships.
It is not that the Government are not doing anything. I never like to enter a debate with a totally negative response, because that is neither fair nor appropriate. I like to take a constructive approach. Apprenticeships are clearly an important alternative career path. Under the apprenticeship levy, the Government’s objective was for 3 million apprenticeships during the lifetime of this Parliament—however long that may be. I remember so many of us saying that it was not the quantity they needed to focus on but the quality of apprenticeships; that is what really matters. If we want to improve the perception of vocational education as a quality alternative career path and lift it up to the level of esteem seen in countries such as Germany, where it is considered to be just as good and necessary as the academic career path, the quality of apprenticeships is important.
I have always been a supporter of university technical colleges—the Baker Dearing concept—because of their ability to encourage young people to see the vocational skills we are examining this evening as a viable alternative that will not only create a possible career for them but could lead to a degree qualification as well. This is not an either/or approach.
A major part of the flagship programme that came about as a result of a number of reviews, including the Sainsbury and Wolf reviews, is the concept of T-levels. I am sure that there will probably be more strident criticisms of T-levels than I will utter this evening. I want only to express the worrying concern I have heard from a number of employers. They tell me that, although 45 days of work experience is a laudable objective for a vocational qualification, they do not know what the Government want them to do. Should employers focus on apprenticeships or T-levels? Some companies are telling me that they will not be able to do both. That is a serious challenge for the Government. The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, said that we should be wary of throwing out the educational qualification baby with the bathwater. Some high-quality educational qualifications exist already. I know it is said that we have too many, but the real problem in establishing new qualifications is just that: establishing them when good-quality ones already exist. I do not want to damn T-levels, but I would welcome the Minister saying how he will deal with the problem that employers have raised with me.
I have only one little objection to what the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, said. He referred to soft skills. I cannot help it: it is a reflex with me that when somebody talks about soft skills, I have to say that they are not “soft” skills but “essential” skills. Talk to employers and they will tell you that it is about not just the qualifications young people bring to them but about the basics of teamwork and turning up on time, and enthusiasm and creativity.
I welcome this vital debate. We still have not reached in this country a position where vocational education is seen as a high-quality, worthwhile route. As I have said on many other occasions, I look forward to the time when I can go into a secondary school and see an honours board which honours not just the young people who have achieved a degree but those who have graduated from a high-quality apprenticeship.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, for initiating this important and timely debate. As we all know, the Queen’s Speech said that “all young people” will,
“have access to an excellent education, unlocking their full potential and preparing them for … work”.
The phrases “all young people” and “preparing them for work” will require a major shift in our schools and our education service if this is to happen.
Currently, about 50% of young people have the capacity to follow an academic curriculum, but the other 50% are caught in a system which is like a straitjacket for their career and vocational aspirations. In schools we have a narrow curriculum, and the introduction of the EBacc is wholly unsuitable for these students. Because of the EBacc, schools have jettisoned other subjects, so we have seen another year in which non-EBacc subjects have dropped further; this time by 11.1%. This of course feeds into our A-levels and a further decline in availability. Design and technology, for example, has reduced by 7.5%.
Can somebody explain this to me? As a country, we have a thriving creative industries sector, which generates 5.5% for the UK economy. There are 2 million jobs in the creative industries, accounting for one in 10 jobs across the UK. By the way, the sector employs 700,000 more people than financial services. However, year by year, as we see this sector grow, creative subjects—music and drama—in our schools are being dropped. One would think we would want to nurture and grow this successful sector by ensuring that young people who have the vocational aspirations to enter it have the opportunity to do so. It is not surprising that school leaders prioritise the EBacc subjects: the other sting in the tail is that 70% of a school’s league table score comes from the results in those subjects. Of course school leaders prioritise these subjects. No wonder Ofsted raised the issue of the narrowing of the school curriculum in a letter to the Public Accounts Committee last year. Its chief inspector said that there is:
“clear evidence of a decline in the quality of education in the narrowing of the curriculum in schools and an endemic pattern of prioritising data and performance results, ahead of the real substance of education”.
For many non-academic young students, a complete focus on end-of-year written examinations is wholly inappropriate. We surely want these students to blossom. Removing most coursework and non-exam assessment and just using end-of-course exams makes those exams extremely high stakes—which, by the way, is a contributing factor to poor mental health among students. Our school system is not vocational education friendly. When a student finishes at 16, schools try to encourage them to stay on in the sixth form—because each student is worth a pot of money—when, in many cases, a vocational course at a college would be more appropriate to their needs. As the House has already heard, the Baker amendment has at least slightly tilted the balance. However, I have heard alarming tales of how schools try to get round the encouragement of vocational courses. Maybe Ofsted needs to look at this.
For the first time in decades we are beginning to see a realisation that if we do not prepare all school students for the world of work, and if we are to provide the skills that our country needs, then the dial needs to be reset. Is it too hopeful to think that we are seeing the beginning, the dawning of a new tomorrow in vocational education? The Secretary of State for Education has talked about vocational education being his top priority and additional resources have gone into the sector. The Augar review set out a vision for England’s higher and further education that, if implemented, will rebalance spending on vocational and technical education. That report also described the disparity between the 50% of young people who do not go to university and those who do. The Augar review was welcomed. Perhaps, when he replies, the Minister will tell the House where we are up to on that and when it will be brought forward.
One of Mr Williamson’s predecessors used to cite other European countries and international tables to bring about changes to education. If we want to see vocational education flourish, we need look no further than Switzerland or Germany or France. I have Swiss relatives and my cousin has two sons who were not academic but have thrived in their education system. Switzerland holds vocational education in equal esteem to academic education. Despite its size, Switzerland is an economic powerhouse. It ranks first in the Global Innovation Index and third in the World Economic Forum’s human capital index. Switzerland’s economy is one of the most inclusive in the world. Switzerland’s vocational and technical education plays a crucial role in preparing young people for the world of work. Two-thirds of young people in Switzerland choose to go down the vocational route, typically at the age of 15 or 16, which involves signing a three or four-year apprenticeship contract. Under Switzerland’s dual system, apprentices typically spend three or four days learning on and off the job at a host company, for which they receive a salary, and one or two days in general education. Pedagogically, the aim is not just to build technical skills but to develop students’ capacities as active citizens.
We obviously cannot just import these ideas, yet there are policy lessons and principles that the UK would do well to consider. I hope that this debate will be the springboard for the renaissance of vocational education that we all hope for.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Bridgeman on initiating this debate. I have been in the House for 23 years and I can barely remember any debate on technical and vocational education. It is important, because the skills gap is large and growing. It is so large that the Government have stopped publishing it—and they have abolished the body that published it. It is very difficult to find out what the skills gap is so, as the chairman of Edge, I set up a group of 20 people to assess the skills gap in various industries. My noble friend Lord Bridgeman referred to this. The gap in engineering is 203,000; there was no A-level in engineering this year. In digital technology it is 600,000; there were just 10,000 A-levels in computing, compared to 120,000 in maths. There should be as many computing A-levels as maths ones. In hospitality, there are 100,000 vacancies; there were only five A-levels in travel and tourism.
The reason for this is that the Gove curriculum, imposed 10 years ago, is wrecking the British education system and does not respond to the needs of the British economy. EBacc is a total and utter disaster. Mr Gove’s successors never tried to challenge it; they could not say “boo” to a goose. I do not understand why the Labour and Liberal parties do not put this in their manifestos. Put some lead in your pencil and say you will abolish EBacc, for heaven’s sake, because it will absolutely destroy technical education below 16. If you do that, you will not get apprentices at 16. Who is going to employ apprentices who have only done academic subjects? No one.
When it comes to apprentices, the Government will run out of money at Christmas. All the levy has been spent and apprenticeships are falling, so they are going to have to make some difficult decisions. Perhaps I may recommend one or two. They should stop offering apprenticeships to men and women who are 40, 50 and 60 years old: 60 year-olds apply for and get apprenticeships. Apprentice grandmas and grandpas —what are they learning, how to die gracefully? For heaven’s sake, do something about that. Concentrate the apprenticeship movement on those aged 14 to 24. Bring back young apprentices at 14. All the great geniuses of the Industrial Revolution started as young apprentices at 14. We should bring back young apprenticeships and also abolish EBacc. I am glad to say that the colleges I have been working on now for 10 years—the university technical colleges—number 48, with 14,500 students.
What we are most proud about with these colleges is that they are quite different. They work from 9 to 5, the working day. I say to the youngsters when they join, “This is the beginning of your working life”. For two days a week, from 14 to 16, they are making things with their hands, and they do academic subjects for the rest. The thing we are most proud about is that they have the best destinations of school leavers of any school in the country. In July this year, 42% of our leavers went to university, but 85% of them did STEM subjects—double the national average—and 31% became apprentices. The average for a normal school is 6%.
Why do Ministers not explain to people how much more apprentices can earn at 18? If you are accepted as a higher apprentice at Rolls-Royce, BMW or Network Rail, and all the qualifications you have are one A-level and one BTEC, you can earn up to £20,000. If you want to go to the Navy, it will pay £32,500—much more than a graduate will get after three or four years as an undergraduate. We must sell this positively if we are to get more people wanting to be apprentices.
We have 24% getting jobs. Why do they get jobs? Because our youngsters have the skills that employers want. They have all worked in teams. That no longer happens in schools. They make things with their hands. That no longer happens in schools. The only lessons I remember from the grammar school I went to in 1945 was two hours of carpentry, making dovetail and tenon joints, which I can just about still do. All that has gone—disappeared totally. Our students can also deal with problem solving, which is no longer done in normal schools. A complete revolution is needed, and UTCs should expand.
The good news I have for noble Lords tonight is that three changes are now being made to UTCs which will mean that they will grow. The first of these is that we are now allowed to recruit at 11. Three years ago, we set up a sort of preparatory school at Leigh in Dartford, alongside the UTC, recruiting youngsters at 11 to 14. It was remarkable to go and see them. One of the first things we discovered was that we get many more girls than boys at that stage, which is good. I saw girls doing GCSE computing at the age of 11. I also saw girls doing basic engineering at 11. This is now considered to be such a success, even by the Government, that they are encouraging other UTCs to start at 11, and any new ones that come along will go from 11 to 18.
The second thing is that the present Secretary of State is the first Secretary of State who likes technical education. He has made it his principal responsibility, which he has done because he came from a manufacturing background and worked with businesspeople in factories. He went to visit the UTC in Plymouth about 10 days ago and was very impressed. The Navy supports the Plymouth one very strongly, so he saw naval ratings helping with the teaching in the college. Again, it produces higher apprentices at 18. When he left the college he said:
“We should never underestimate the importance and the power that technical, vocational qualifications have in terms of driving our economic performance. And UTCs like the one I visited at Plymouth today are a perfect exemplar of what more we need to be doing in the future”.
He is the first Secretary of State for 10 years who has said anything nice about UTCs.
Michael Gove was totally opposed to them; he did not believe in technical education below 16; the other three flitted over technical education. So that is very good and, as a result, we are going to be allowed to make applications for new UTCs. We have three going in next month, and one is opening in Doncaster this year. So the tide is behind me, the sun is actually not blinding my eyes, and I feel some sense of motion. I cannot say that it has happened entirely with the help of the department—but even it is now being helpful, because it realises that we have to do something quite dramatic in order to catch up with the rest of Europe and the rest of the world in technical education.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Viscount on obtaining this debate, which I trust will not unduly harm our performance of “The Dream of Gerontius” with the Parliament Choir next month. It is also a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Baker, with his unparalleled wisdom and experience on this topic, and whose comments I very much endorse.
One of the UK’s greatest current challenges is shortage of key skills, contributing to our alarmingly low productivity. Some 93% of leaders of fast-growing businesses said in 2017 that their number one worry was the skills of students leaving school. For many young people, not least those from disadvantaged backgrounds, high-quality vocational education may provide the best route to gaining skills that enable them to fulfil their potential. Governments have been trying for years to improve vocational education so that it earns parity of esteem with the academic route, via university. There is still a long way to go and I will briefly talk about three areas in which improvement is needed: careers education and guidance, work experience provision, and awareness raising.
Significant progress has been made in careers education since the Government launched their careers strategy in 2017. There is now a clear definition of what good careers guidance in schools looks like, in the form of the eight Gatsby benchmarks. More than 3,800 schools and colleges are measuring themselves against those benchmarks. The Careers & Enterprise Company, responsible for co-ordinating delivery of the strategy, has created a network of more than 2,500 enterprise advisers to support schools in setting up links with employers. Every school must have a published careers programme and a named careers leader. The Government are funding training for 1,300 careers leaders and more than 40 careers hubs have been or are being set up around the country, covering about one-quarter of all secondary schools and colleges. There is clear evidence of progress against all eight benchmarks by schools across the country, with disadvantaged areas, encouragingly, among the best performers.
I hope the Minister will respond to some suggestions about where further effort is needed to ensure that all students benefit from these moves. First, as we have heard, the Augar review of post-18 education recommended that careers hubs should be rolled out nationwide so that every school would be part of a hub. Will the Government implement this, and how soon? Secondly, I hear some concerns about inconsistent quality across the network of enterprise advisers. How do the Government plan to monitor and assess the effectiveness of the network to ensure consistent delivery? Thirdly, the eighth Gatsby benchmark, concerning personal guidance, requires students to receive one face-to-face interview with a careers professional by age 16 and another by age 18. How are the Government addressing the current shortage of qualified careers advisers to meet this need?
One essential element of careers education is work experience. The fifth Gatsby benchmark calls for encounters with employers and employees; schools need to give students at least one such encounter a year from ages 11 to 17, seven in all. A major challenge is finding enough employers willing and able to offer high-quality work experience, especially among SMEs.
Recently I took part in a launch by the British Youth Council’s work experience action group— six young people aged between 16 and 25—of a toolkit for SMEs interested in offering work experience placements. This includes an excellent analysis of what constitutes good-quality work experience, as well as guidelines on how to achieve it and a useful resource bank of sample forms, checklists and templates. Resources such as this should be made more widely available to, and easily accessible by, the SMEs which could benefit from them.
There are numerous other excellent initiatives providing tools and assistance both for schools and students looking for placements and for employers willing to offer them. The Workfinder platform developed by Founders4Schools is particularly ambitious in its scope and impressive in its use of online technology, enabling students to identify and set up their own placements, often with fast-growing, high-potential enterprises for which work experience is a crucial part of addressing the severe skills shortages they face.
Services such as these will become ever more important as demand grows, including, as we have heard, from T-levels. How does the Minister plan to address this need? Should there be an online directory to signpost the services and resources available? Would he consider offering incentives, financial or other, to encourage SMEs to offer placements? What about the often-touted idea of a UCAS-like portal for young people looking for suitable technical and vocational pathways?
The Education Secretary promised at the Conservative Party conference to,
“give my all to make technical and vocational education the first choice for anybody with the aptitude, desire and interest to pursue it.”
As the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said, that is a very encouraging statement for a Minister to make, but for it to happen there needs to be much greater awareness of its opportunities and benefits among students, teachers, schools, parents and employers. Many if not most teachers lack the necessary background and experience of business fully to appreciate what skills and attributes employers seek. What plans does the Minister have to provide them with training and support, perhaps through specialised work placements specifically designed for teachers? I have also recently heard of plans for a coalition for careers education to create online courses for teachers on the FutureLearn platform to enhance their digital skills and familiarity as well as their awareness of employer needs. What are the Government doing to encourage such initiatives?
Often the best champions of vocational education are young people themselves. There are no better ambassadors for apprenticeships, for example, than young apprentices such as those we often meet at events in Parliament. Might the Minister consider extending the Baker clause to encourage schools or even require them to allow recent former students to return to share their experiences of following vocational routes, which I know many have found it hard to do?
This Government have been prodigal in making bold promises about what they seek to achieve. I hope the Minister will be able to be much more specific about how they intend to deliver on those promises relating to vocational education in secondary schools.
My Lords, I also congratulate my noble friend on securing this important and timely debate. The future success of the UK depends on developing and sustaining a competitive, highly skilled, knowledge-based economy. This is clearly recognised in the industrial strategy, pioneered by the former Prime Minister and the former Business Secretary, Greg Clark.
In spite of our reassuringly high levels of employment, it is concerning that the latest OECD figures report a serious productivity gap between the UK and other advanced western economies. The House will be aware that in terms of GDP per hour worked, the UK was 22.6% behind the US, 22.8% behind France and 26.2% behind Germany. Helping young people develop the skills they need to do highly paid and highly skilled jobs is a key part of addressing this challenge.
It is well accepted in this House in particular that our academic education is highly acclaimed; it is a remarkable achievement, as Dame Carolyn Fairbairn said last week, that we have now reached the 50% mark of young people going on to university. In the QS World University Rankings 2020, British universities make up four of the global top 10. However, we have in no way reached that equivalent standard in providing technical education. This goes right back to the Education Act 1944. We have come and gone, stopped and started, but never really secured this prize. It is fascinating to me personally because my great-grandfather was the secretary and educational adviser to the Technical Education Board in 1893, working with the Webbs on setting up technical institutes all across London. His son, my grandfather, when 32 and a senior wrangler, became principal of Manchester College of Technology, which he led for eight years. This was all of course before the 1944 Education Act.
The time has now come for us not to have new initiatives and advisers but to be steadfast and tenacious. I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Baker mentioned the real and unequivocal commitment of the current Secretary of State to take vocational education seriously. Real progress is under way. The last Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, was a staunch and steadfast believer in vocational education. I commend also Anne Milton, who did a huge amount to promote vocational education and careers guidance. The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, has a preoccupation with careers guidance; as he said in his maiden speech, careers education is,
“the bridge from education to employment”,—[Official Report, 26/11/09; cols. 505-06.]
and I think we would all agree.
The introduction of T-levels, which will be rolled out over the coming years, is a great step forward, framing advanced technical education as an alternative to the academic path but equal in value and esteem. There is the challenge. Informed by the models in other countries such as Norway and the Netherlands—the noble Lord, Lord Storey, referred to Switzerland, which I was also going to mention—at least we are learning from the evidence of others. The courses will offer longer teaching hours, higher standards and meaningful education placements, enabling students to strive for excellence within these disciplines. I would be grateful if the Minister could elaborate further on how the Government plan to deliver these substantial reforms in a managed way across the country.
The other person who deserves great celebration is the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, who set up the Independent Panel on Technical Education and has been involved in the development of the Gatsby criteria for careers guidance.
I particularly wanted to move on to praise my noble friend Lord Baker and provide evidence from a flourishing aspect of my life in Hull. For many years I was a Member of Parliament in a prosperous part of the country but, as many will know, for the last 14 years my preoccupation has been the well-being, employment and prosperity of the Humber and Hull. The Ron Dearing UTC there is the most remarkable success. I have been talking to Sarah Pashley, the principal, and what is being achieved is quite remarkable. Students have a longer day, as my noble friend is suggesting: a 40-hour week, 9.15 am to 5.15 pm. It is in its third year, and it will more than meet its targets regarding admissions, but of course the crucial fact—this goes back to the Baker clause—is that the college and the curriculum are employer-led. Smith & Nephew—I declare an interest as a board member, and as chancellor of Hull—KCOM, Reckitt Benckiser, Siemens, the Spencer Group, whose chairman is the chairman of the governors, and the University of Hull: all are actively engaged, and they design and deliver the curriculum in collaboration with the academic staff.
Students learn in lessons on real projects, and student behaviour is exemplary. The college is open plan; it looks and feels like a business environment, not a school. Students and teachers are on first-name terms, and appropriate professional behaviour is expected and received. The students are given responsibility. There are laptop labs where students help themselves; there is no theft to mention. I remind the House that Hull is not an area with low crime levels; it has a lot of difficulty in employment and the economy. Students are employed as IT technicians. The focus is not on STEM but on STEAM. The college believes that science, technology, engineering and maths are extraordinary important but that so are the arts, and that creativity and design are integral to our competitiveness. I applaud and admire it.
The senior engineering director in advanced manufacturing at Smith & Nephew’s wound care division sits on the UTC board. He is passionate about it and believes that it is unique. There is strong local business investment and involvement and the business leaders provide time and resources. This is a great initiative, and not common at all around the world. The curriculum is not just intended to get someone a job but is much broader, developing the whole person—and this is only the beginning. What is so exciting is that this is a plan which has delivered in practice. Even cynics and people on the margins believe that there is change to be had.
I hope that the House will agree that we need to make up for lost time since 1944. We have achieved massively in higher education. Now is the time, particularly with our new position in relation to Europe and the world, for us to invest in people so that they can have rewarding, skilled technical and vocational courses which are just as important as theoretical or academic courses and careers.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, and I echo her last points about investing for the future. I also congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, on securing this debate. I want to deal with one specific point, which is how this all relates to children excluded from school. Like him, I shall go slightly off target, as it were, and talk a little about primary as well as secondary schools.
The number of pupils excluded in the last year for which we have records, 2017-18, was 411,000 temporarily excluded from schools, but my real concern here is that nearly 8,000 pupils were permanently excluded. That is a slight rise, continuing the trend in recent years. Noble Lords will not be surprised to know that there were higher levels among pupils with special educational needs and some ethnic groups.
I recently visited two alternative providers for pupils excluded from school. Both were impressive. One was rural, taking about 30 children; the other was urban, with about 130 children. Both were providing for both primary and secondary children. At the country one, I saw an adult working one-to-one with primary school children who, in a sense, had not had a childhood. It was about play as much as education, I think: social skills, relating to adults, and opportunities to regress in ways that they needed to, but also to learn. At the urban one, the head teacher told me that the real issue with secondary-age pupils was to keep them coming back to the provider, not just disappearing—and when she said “disappearing”, I am afraid she meant it, becoming feral, as it were, in our society. “The real danger”, she said, “is that they mix with others here and become criminalised”. She talked to me about county lines drugs and prostitution.
Both heads were really impressive people. Both saw their work as building on strengths and helping children to succeed. Both told me about their successes, with children learning carpentry, joinery, making things and hairdressing—with one wanting to go on to become a midwife—and other practical skills. I was particularly struck by the head teacher at the urban alternative provider, who told me of a young girl she had met in the street who had recently been her in her care who said, “Miss, miss, I’m a taxpayer now”. What an extraordinary story of success. There cannot be many times in your Lordships’ House that one hears of anyone being delighted to be a taxpayer, but what a great success that was.
Both those head teachers were scathing about the number of children being excluded from school: far too many, they said, which was unnecessary and putting children at risk. The reason for those large numbers, they said—and it appears to be true—was a lot of head teachers wanting to remove some pupils from their school because of their effect on the school’s average on tests and exams. We are still waiting to hear from the Government what they will do to ensure that pupils excluded from schools are included in their results. Perhaps the Minister can let us know what is happening on that.
I also recognise the stress that a teacher must face if they have particularly disruptive pupils in their class. That must be very difficult to deal with. I know that schools cannot remake the past for those children. It is not their responsibility to deal with all those problems—many of them need other professional input as well—but they need to meet the children where they are. These are children excluded from schools, but one could see it the other way round: they are children rejecting school.
This is where I link back to vocational education and what schools do in their culture and norms and curricula. As has been said, are we squeezing out the technical subjects and putting a greater focus only on academic ones—a point that has been made powerfully by many speakers in the debate? Are we trying to squeeze children through too narrow a gate? Should we not be more like the heads of those alternative providers, finding their strengths and talents, nurturing them and thus building up confidence and self-esteem?
I note that getting an award such as a BTEC is associated with pupils having lower absence rates, lower rates of permanent exclusion and lower fixed exclusion rates. Pupils with special educational needs support taking a technical award in state-funded mainstream schools also have lower absence, permanent exclusion and fixed exclusion rates when compared with similar young people with educational support. These are powerful additional arguments for why we should be providing more vocational and technical education and training. It is also important that we focus on children with special educational needs to make sure that they are given these opportunities.
What could be done on vocational, or at least technical, education for primary school children, thus helping them to avoid setting out on a lifetime of social exclusion and quite possibly crime? I am reminded of the observation made by my noble friend Lord Bird. He said that the average seller of the Big Issue has had £1 million of taxpayers’ money spent on them. That is the case whether they have been in care for a few years, whether they have ended up in prison, whether they have addictions or ended up in mental and other hospitals. That is an enormous amount, so this is a massive issue for the whole of society. It is not just about not building up problems for the future; it is about lost opportunities for individuals in society. Of course, this is a systems issue with no single key; all organisations and policies need to work together. But I do believe that vocational and technical education, along with changing curricula at school in the way that has been so well described in the debate, is a substantial part of the solution.
Finally, I want to put three questions to the Minister. They go slightly off piste, so perhaps he might like to write to me on them. Do he and Her Majesty’s Government agree that too many children are permanently excluded from school? If so, what more should be done by schools and others? Thirdly, and most pertinent to this debate, how could the principles being applied in vocational education and training be applied in primary schools?
My Lords, perhaps I may remind the House of my registered interests as chairman of the trustees of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and deputy patron of the Outward Bound Trust. There can be no dispute about the crying need to strengthen vocational education and training in our secondary schools. In developing our obsession with widening university access, we have overly focused on academic qualifications. As a result, I believe that we have grown to seriously undervalue vocational education and training. But I must go further and point to the desperate need to ensure that our young people—all of our young people—leave school educated and trained in the basic life skills: the essential skills they need to enter the world of work and to develop into responsible citizens; to form successful relationships; to become capable mums and dads who know how to bring up their own children and help to keep our society cohesive.
I am aware that I am going a little off-piste, but this is the area on which I intend to focus. The world of work is experiencing a revolution and in order to keep pace, the way we educate and train our students needs to change too. Our young people need equipping to deal with the new challenges that they will encounter in the workplace, and we all need to recognise that there is so much more to life and to education than formulaic teaching in order to pass exams. Education should be about understanding, not just memory. Growing our wisdom and learning specific skills is clearly important, but of no greater importance than character development. So while we should undoubtedly encourage and support excellence in academia, and expand the opportunities to grow the prestige of vocational education, it is also most important to develop the key qualities and skills—essential skills, not soft skills; I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Young, about that particular term—that help to prepare our young people, whether they have followed an academic or technical route, for success and enrichment in every sense in life and in work. I am talking about the essential qualities that are vital in living a good life, but cannot be measured by academic markers: self-confidence, self-discipline, adaptability and resilience, resourcefulness, emotional intelligence and caring for others. They are all key qualities that ultimately have a much greater bearing on happiness and fulfilment than exam results.
There is little point in preparing a child for the world of work with straight A grades and a fine degree if they have the wrong attitude: no self-belief, minimal communication skills or any real understanding of the work ethic. Many secondary schools and academies strive to provide a balanced, rounded education, but there is undoubtedly a serious and important need to strengthen the focus on robust, enhanced vocational and life skills programmes in secondary schools. In order to achieve that efficiently, effectively and speedily, the future has to involve partnerships in education between businesses, local and national government, our entire educational services and, I contend, external skills providers such as Young Enterprise and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award—and there are others. Indeed, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award is already involved in some way with around 75% of secondary schools. These are charities with long track records of proven success and the necessary links and connections with business and industry to provide hands-on, real-life experiences. They are organisations with unparalleled expertise in preparing young people for the world of work and in developing life skills.
Our neglect in providing access to personal development has resulted in many youngsters leaving school or even university with no idea of what employers expect of them and no idea how to speak to a potential employer. They have no idea how to accept a subordinate role as a new starter in an organisation or how to interact with the mix of generations whom they will encounter as their colleagues. They have no financial acumen and little idea of how to manage the money they earn or how best to handle cash, credit cards and loans. In short, for many, the final step off the academic ladder and the transition to actual work come as a very rude shock indeed. Far too many of our young people, who may well have achieved the right exam grades, demonstrate a serious deficiency in these basic life skills.
Thankfully, a no-risk answer is at hand. To inspire, encourage, energise and involve all those necessary in actioning the process simply requires the Government to ease budgetary restraints a little and commit the necessary resources to schools to provide the reliable funding needed to enable them to choose external providers such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, Young Enterprise, or any other expert they prefer, to partner with business and work directly with schools to teach the right life skills and promote social competence and well-being.
I am not standing here presenting an advertisement for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, proud as I am of all its incredible achievements over the past 64 years. Rather, it is to emphasise the skills that it teaches and the positive attitudes it encourages—subjects that should be core and standard in every school curriculum if our goal really is to shape and prepare a more rounded, confident and capable generation with the character and attitude to benefit families, community and the country alike.
My Lords, I rise to speak in the gap to make a short comment from my own perspective as chairman of the Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership and, as a result, a member of the NP11, which was a sponsor of the Convention of the North held in Rotherham a few weeks ago. Some noble Lords may remember that, in his contribution to that convention, the Prime Minister raised the question of devolving certain aspects of policy development and implementation to the regions.
As all the speakers have said, skills are very important. They matter for the prosperity of parts of Britain—and I speak from Cumbria, which has a poor record on productivity although that is partly to do with the actual metrics deployed. But equally important, they matter to the development of the people who live in this country and enabling them to have worthwhile and fulfilled lives.
What is clear from this debate is that the relationship between schools, training, further and higher education, charities and the needs of employers is multifaceted and can be calibrated in variety of ways. It is part of the role of LEPs to drive the skills agenda forward. In response to the policy enunciated in Rotherham by the Prime Minister, I call on the Government in delivering this devolved approach to ensure, first, that it is genuinely devolved and secondly that it gives those on the ground a proper degree of discretion because there are horses for courses and different things pertain in different places. That will enable us most effectively, within the essential criteria of safeguarding and standards, to deliver what central government wants us to do.
My Lords, I join in the thanks to the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, for initiating this debate on a topic very dear to my heart. The Government have decided to rename vocational qualifications “technical” in the deluded notion that that will in any way alter the academic superiority which has, for generations, bedevilled our economy and our young learners. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, set out, schools are measured on their EBaccs, GCSEs, A-levels and university entrants, so inevitably, where their reputations and their financing are at issue, they will of course be constrained to channel their students into those paths, however inappropriate, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, set out—and I may say that I agreed with everything the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said.
As ever, I declare an interest as a vice-president of City & Guilds. At one stage, when I was working for the institute, I was involved with qualifications for schools, at that point CPVEs—certificates of pre-vocational education. I went into schools that offered them and, time and again, came across young people who would have been lost in my classes when I was teaching French but who were blossoming when faced with learning about car engines, catering or caring. They found a confidence in learning because they were involved in an activity which played to their interests and their talents. The icing on the cake was being awarded a national certificate for their endeavours—something that had often totally eluded them in an academic curriculum. It was splendid to see them discover that learning was fun and relevant. As their confidence grew, so too did their capacity to look at maths, English and science as other possible areas of achievement. In other words, vocational achievement could be the key to unlocking academic achievement. However, like so many vocational endeavours over the years, including GNVQs, diplomas and others, CPVEs fell prey to the academic thought police who opined that they were not proper qualifications—where was the grammar and the trigonometry?—so they were withdrawn.
As I said in the Queen’s Speech debate, and as the noble Viscount said today, do the Government never make the connection between the growth in gangs and violent crime among young people and the fact that their compulsory education has left them alienated from learning, with a lack of self-confidence and self- respect, because Shakespeare and algebra are not their skill set? Had there been encouragement and opportunity to work on cars, plumbing, construction, catering or the creative industries, as my noble friend Lord Storey set out, how different their lives after school might have been—and their chances of exclusion would have been much reduced, as the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, set out.
The Queen’s Speech referred to the education system preparing young people for the world of work. As the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, said, that depends on good-quality careers information and guidance at the earliest stage, certainly at primary school. It appears that very young children begin to gender-identify jobs as boys’ jobs and girls’ jobs. The country faces a critical skills shortage. It is essential that girls are encouraged into construction and engineering, and how good it was to hear of the 11 year-old girls doing engineering in the schools mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Baker. So they should. Why should the boys have all the fun? Equally, boys should be encouraged into primary teaching and nursing if that is where their talents and inclinations lie. We cannot afford to sideline any of our young people from following work-based paths where their skills would be in great demand.
I asked in that debate—and now have a Minister to answer—“What are the Government doing to motivate those young people?” They may gain no credits for their schools in the narrow definition of education against which schools are judged. They may wish to embark on apprenticeships, often in the teeth of opposition of school and parents, who fail to understand just how important a skilled workforce may be—and, even then, they are faced with the inexplicable need to pass GCSE English and maths, which may well be entirely inappropriate to their chosen career. Above all, they need essential skills and a work ethic, as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkham, set out.
I know of the interest that the Minister takes in further education, with its remit for work-based skills. It would be good to know that the narrow academic paths that are the flavour of choice of this Government will be broadened with work-based ones.
I should also like to ask the Minister about the dreaded T-levels. Why are the Government not building on BTEC and City & Guilds qualifications, which have long been the benchmarks for industry? Can he reassure us that such tried-and-tested qualifications will not be undermined and will continue to be funded and supported? This Government will not be forgiven if, in their pursuit of their latest initiative, they withdraw funding and support from technical and craft vocational qualifications, which have long served employers and learners so well. Will the Government think again on T-levels and give more time for them to be piloted, meanwhile ensuring that existing qualifications remain available and supported for work-based learners? We have heard from all sides of the House today how vital it is that we raise the game on our vocational and skilled workforce. Doing away with tried-and-tested qualifications will not help with that.
We face skills shortages in construction, engineering, hospitality and the creative industries. We have heard that other countries—Switzerland and others have been noted—already surpass us in preparing young people for the world of work. We deserve an education system that meets the needs of learners and the economy, and that calls for a much better supported offering of vocational education and training at secondary school. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, has done your Lordships a service in securing this important debate, because the world of work is rapidly changing and many of today’s jobs will simply not exist in 20 years’ time, or perhaps rather less. Although all nations will seek to equip their citizens with the skills to harness the power of the fourth industrial revolution, the UK alone must grapple with the additional challenges presented by separating ourselves from the EU. Therefore, it is important for individuals and the nation’s future economic strength that the UK skills system is positioned to empower people to respond to those changes.
As outlined by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, in his opening remarks, a shortage of key skills in the workforce is currently one of the country’s major economic worries. In addressing that, schools have a key role to play in the advice they give and the subject opportunities that they make available to their pupils. I echo the concerns of the noble Lords, Lord Baker and Lord Storey, about the effect of the EBacc on narrowing the curriculum and squeezing out creative subjects.
As the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, said, high-quality careers education in schools—and colleges—is a key enabler for vocational education and training and for encouraging more young people to explore, understand and go on to pursue vocational routes such as apprenticeships. The quality of careers education is crucial in this respect. Indeed, it was identified as an area of concern in last year’s House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report entitled Delivering STEM Skills for the Economy.
A basic problem is that schools are funded on a per pupil basis, so head teachers have a clear financial incentive to retain their existing students, rather than encourage them to move to learning institutions that provide vocational or technical skills. Since that PAC report, the Careers & Enterprise Company has become more widely established. It has built a network to link schools and colleges to employers and has funded employer engagement activities. It has had notable success but much remains to be done. The CEC’s recently published State of the Nation report shows that only one in eight schools fully achieved Gatsby benchmark 7, which requires schools to provide encounters with education and training providers. Six in eight schools partially achieved it.
The full development of the role of careers leaders, which I believe to be an essential part of this jigsaw and was a move mandated by the Government’s careers strategy, is far from universally popular with head teachers. Can the Minister say what proportion of schools now have careers leaders in place and what percentage of those are part of the school’s senior leadership team? Until head teachers are fully supportive of the role of careers leaders, we will not see the meaningful progress necessary to provide all pupils with access to the various avenues open to them.
Various noble Lords have of course mentioned the Baker clause, which was created to require schools to allow education and training providers access to pupils. However, simply placing a requirement on schools is a blunt instrument. Schools need support to make them effective in delivering the Gatsby benchmarks. Of course, the level of vocational education available to young people in their schools is a key factor in encouraging them to follow routes to a career path other than the academic one.
We know that the number of vocational qualifications in England in the second quarter of this year decreased by 6% compared to the same quarter in 2018. That is obviously concerning. Can the Minister say what his officials at the DfE have identified as likely reasons for it? It would never be likely that the numbers studying GCSEs in vocational studies would approach those studying, say, mathematics but it would seem that the benefits of a vocational education are not widely enough appreciated among young people. Addressing that is a task that faces us all.
For 30 years now, as some noble Lords have mentioned, BTECs have been the most prominent vocational career-focused qualifications offered in schools. They have the benefit that they can be studied alongside GCSEs and A-levels and are aligned to the future of skills and employability, mainly at level 2 but also at level 3. The road ahead for T-levels in not clear. As my noble friend Lord Young said, employers’ concerns about potential conflict with apprenticeships need to be listened to. It is to be hoped that, when T-levels are fully introduced in 2022, they will not be seen as an alternative to BTECs, which should continue to play an important role. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, in asking the Minister what effect he believes T-levels will have on BTECs, and what future relationship between the two is envisaged by the Government.
The point to be made most strongly to young people—and, importantly, to their parents—is that educational attainment should not be solely associated with a degree. It is not difficult to put together a list of apprenticeships that lead to qualifications in skills that are highly and—importantly—sustainably marketable; this is much more so, it should be said, than is the case with many degrees that are offered by some universities. I would never suggest that going to university is a waste of time but, in many cases, it will not be the wisest choice that a young person can make with a view to building a career.
To reinforce a point that I made earlier, it is unforgivable for any head teacher to impede in any way young people’s exposure to the full range of learning and career opportunities available to them. This range should include both academic and vocational routes and learning in schools, colleges, universities and in the workplace, with all schools welcoming FE and technical education providers. I concur with the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, on enforcement. Can the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State will make it absolutely clear that the requirements of the Baker clause are the law, and that choosing whether, or to what extent, to comply with it is not an option open to head teachers?
My Lords, I am pleased to answer the Question for Short Debate and to thank my noble friend Lord Bridgeman for creating this opportunity.
This Government are committed to ensuring excellent educational outcomes for all children whatever their backgrounds. All young people should get the opportunity to reach their potential, whether that be through an academic or a more vocationally focused route. I agree with my noble friend Lord Bridgeman, and indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, that technical and vocational education has for too long not been given the focus it deserves. As a result, the content of vocational qualifications has too often been misaligned with what employers actually want. This is why the Government are putting employers at the heart of our work to build a new, world-class education system.
We are developing T-levels. They are rigorous qualifications for students aged 16 to 18 who want to study subjects that will prepare them for skilled jobs. Crucially, the content of T-levels is being set by employers; some 200 have worked with us in their creation, so students taking T-levels can be sure that they are gaining skills that businesses are looking for. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Young, and the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, are concerned that we are now rolling these out. T-levels will include a broad core of underpinning knowledge. They will include English, maths and digital skills as well as other transferable skills. They will attract UCAS points equivalent to three A-levels and students will be able to progress into higher education.
In answer to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, we are conducting a wider review of post-16 qualifications with the aim of streamlining the vast number on offer. Our apprenticeship reforms have been focused on quality, ensuring that the new employer-led apprenticeships reflect what today’s businesses really want and need. All this supports the Government’s aim of overtaking Germany in the opportunities that we offer to those studying technical routes by 2029.
On soft skills, my noble friend Lord Bridgeman and the noble Lord, Lord Young, asked about support. I rather agree that the term “soft skills” underplays the importance of those skills that you need to engage in a career. We are providing £1,000 for both employers and providers taking on 16 to 18 year-old apprentices and eligible 19 to 24 year-old apprentices, which allows them to provide support on what are currently called soft skills. If anyone wants to suggest a better term, I would be very open to that.
I regret that I will have to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Storey, my noble friend Lord Baker and several other Peers today on the EBacc. The Sutton Trust did some research on 300 schools a couple of years ago, looking at the impact of the EBacc on children. It showed that the average grades in English and maths rose by 0.2 and 0.4 of a grade respectively, with the five A to C pass rate improving by 1.2%. Pupils who attended the schools were also 1.7% more likely to be taking an A-level or other level 3 qualifications. Pupil-premium students benefited most from the changes in these schools, essentially because low and middle prior-attainment students increased the take-up of EBacc subjects most. As a result, the pupil premium gap closed more in schools with similar pupil intake demographics, including a six percentage point narrowing of the EBacc gap.
We want students to have the option of studying technical and vocational subjects before the age of 16. That is why we deliberately designed the EBacc to allow for the study of additional subjects. Our Progress 8 school performance measure takes account of the results that pupils achieve in up to three technical and vocational qualifications alongside their GCSEs. However, it is critical that the vocational courses that students take at key stage 4 are of high quality and as vigorous as GCSEs, and that they have real value in terms of progression on to further study and employment.
Several Peers asked about careers advice. We are working closely with the Careers & Enterprise Company and are making good progress in delivering the careers strategy. We have extended the enterprise adviser network of senior business volunteers across the country. Over 2,200 schools and colleges are now matched to an enterprise adviser. We have established 40 new career hubs, meaning that around one-quarter of secondary schools and colleges in England will now benefit. We have made over 1,300 career leader training bursaries available for schools and colleges. We have introduced a targeted set of funds for disadvantaged areas focusing on personal guidance, SEND and vulnerable young people. Of course there is more to do, and it is our aspiration for all the services to be available to all secondary schools. The careers budget in 2021 will be confirmed after the conclusion of the department’s business planning process.
In 2011, the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, conducted a review of vocational education for 14 to 19 year-olds. It found that the system of vocational education at the time was failing many young people. A large proportion of students were on courses that had little or no market value, and it was seen as a second-class route aimed at the less able. The Government announced a number of reforms in response to the Wolf review. These changes included ensuring that only those vocational qualifications that were the most valuable for young people in terms of their content, assessment and progression would be recognised in performance tables. The Wolf review found that a broad-based academic curriculum at key stage 4 was the best way of keeping pupils’ options open. It accepted that for some pupils a proportion of curriculum time might be used for other options.
The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, asked about exclusions—there is a connection there, as I recognise. However, it is important to stress that the number of permanent exclusions is still extremely low. At 0.01%, it is lower than it was 10 years ago. We have consulted on the issue of off-rolling, which I suppose is an ugly first cousin of exclusion. We are clamping down on it. The new Ofsted inspection framework requires much greater scrutiny of any off-rolling-type behaviour in schools.
The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, asked what support we are offering for employers in other work placements. We have expanded the role of the National Apprenticeship Service to provide a matchmaking service. In May, we announced a £7 million employer support fund pilot to trial the provision of financial support to employers across different industries.
Virtually every noble Lord, but particularly the noble Lords, Lord Young and Lord Storey, and my noble friends Lord Baker and Lord Kirkham, said that they feel that the vocational route does not get the status it deserves. I completely agree. I think we have overcooked the rather lazy mantra of encouraging children to go to university whatever the cost to them and whatever the quality of the course they are studying. We are starting to change that. As someone who did not go to university, I am passionate about this. I am one of seven children and only one of my siblings went to university. We have all managed perfectly well without it. This is the beginning of the push-back.
We know that for some students technical and vocational education at this stage of their education can help to motivate and engage them, as well as opening their eyes to potential options for future study and careers. To address the point made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, evidence shows that for pupils in state-funded mainstream schools in 2017, taking a technical award was associated with lower absence and exclusion rates.
Despite the reforms following the Wolf review, concerns remain regarding the quality of some of these qualifications. In recent months, the department has been working with Ofqual to consider what more needs to be done to ensure that we can have confidence that these awards are of high quality. Ofqual launched a consultation only last week on finding a way to achieve this. I am confident that this will lead to further improvements in the quality of technical education at key stage 4 in the future.
It would be wrong to omit reference to universal technical colleges and to not pay credit and tribute to my noble friend Lord Baker. I have spent more time with him than any other Peer in this House in the last two years. Strong UTCs are succeeding in equipping our young people with the skills businesses need, getting them into employment and creating a future pipeline of skilled workers. Several noble Lords referred to the Baker clause, including my noble friend Lord Bridgeman in particular. This is a new clause that came in only during the summer of last year, so we cannot expect universal take-up straightaway. However, I completely accept that not enough schools have taken it seriously enough, and we will be taking a tougher approach with them. We surveyed a number of schools recently and 76% stated that the duty is being partially complied with. A further review this summer found that compliance, although patchy, is improving. In January of this year, a report from the IPPR contained similar findings: 70% of providers found it difficult to access schools in their area, but one in three said the situation had improved. I am not complacent, and we will continue to put pressure on schools to be more open to this.
My noble friends Lord Baker and Lord Bridgeman asked about the size of the skills gap. In September, we announced that a new skills and productivity board will be established to provide the Government with expert advice on how to ensure that the courses and qualifications on offer to students are high quality, are aligned to the skills that employers need for the future and will help increase productivity. We are also establishing skills advisory panels across the country, to bring together local employers and skills providers to understand and address local skills challenges. In tackling skills gaps, the Government’s role is to support the skills market in making it more responsive to demand. We are doing this by delivering a long-term programme to reform the post-16 skills system.
My noble friend Lord Bridgeman also asked what the Government are doing to introduce children to trades in the first two years of secondary school specifically. Schools must support young people to understand the education, training and careers options open to them. The work must start long before students reach that point of decision. Careers advice should inform and inspire them from an early age. That is why the Government expect all schools to provide careers guidance from year 7—
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord. I asked a specific question about the challenge facing employers in responding to T-levels and the 45 days of work experience that they have to provide. They are also expected to support apprenticeships. That is the challenge they are faced with. Some are saying that they cannot do both. If the Minister cannot provide the answer now, I would welcome some further response.
I am certainly happy to write with more detail, but the National Apprenticeship Service is working with 12,000 employers to deal with the challenges the noble Lord quite rightly raised.
I am conscious that I am running out of time. An area I want to address is the development of institutes of technology. These will be high-quality education providers, delivering high-level technical education with a clear route to high-skilled employment. We have committed to 12 of these and eight more are due to follow. We aspire to having one in every part of the country in due course. The idea is a collaborative model involving partnerships of existing FE and HE institutions, operating at regional and sub-regional scale, focusing on STEM subjects, with 50% of planned provision relating to engineering and manufacturing.
This debate has highlighted the importance of robust vocational and technical qualifications. My noble friend Lady Bottomley is right that a lot of work is in play and we are tackling prejudices that go back more than 100 years. I hope that the range of actions that I have set out demonstrates how serious the Government are in continuing to strengthen technical education to support young people. I believe that the tide is turning for vocational routes.
House adjourned at 8.16 pm.