Lord Baker contributes to House of Lords debate on vocational education and training

Lord Baker took part in a rare and lively debate on vocational education and training in the House of Lords in October. The debate was called by Viscount Lord Bridgeman who started by highlighting the significant skills shortages across engineering, tech, hospitality and the NHS. He revealed the low take-up of vocational qualifications in relation to the skills requirements and suggested that career support is underfunded and needs improvement. Lord Bridgeman put forward some reservations around T Levels and supports the enforcement of the Baker Clause. Lord Baker’s contribution to the debate is recorded below.

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, 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 of 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.

Lord Baker’s contribution to the debate was taken from Hansard Parliament. To read all contributions to the debate please visit https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/2019-10-28/debates/AFF8C8D2-4679-4BBB-9758-E7DCD95D2216/VocationalEducationAndTraining