Stephen Twigg – 2013 Speech to Policy Exchange

Below is the text of the speech made by Stephen Twigg, the Shadow Education Secretary, to the Policy Exchange Conference on 23rd January 2013.

I am delighted to have the opportunity this morning to set out my thinking on the future of vocational education in this country.

I want to thank David and Policy Exchange for providing me with this platform and for the important contribution that you are making to this debate.

The report that you published earlier this week reveals both the challenges and opportunities we face in delivering a vocational education system that will strengthen our country’s standing in the world.

We can only achieve lasting and sustainable reform if there is a coalition of support across politics, business and of course amongst parents, teachers and students themselves. Policy Exchange is playing an important role in building a coalition that is both in the best interests of young people and future economic growth.

It is great to see that Labour’s plans to improve the status and quality of practical and technical skills in this country, which Ed Miliband announced last September, are now gaining cross-party support. Our plans for a gold standard Technical Baccalaureate qualification are supported not just by this leading right of centre think tank, but also by the Conservative former Education Secretary Lord Baker, and albeit belatedly, by the Minister for Skills.

It’s this kind of consensus that can create long term education reform. It’s the kind of consensus that is totally lacking in Michael Gove’s plans to introduce EBacc Certificates. Or I should say there is a consensus, just not in favour. It spans the CBI, the designer of the iPhone, the head of the Tate gallery, the leading private schools, the head of Ofqual and many teachers and their associations. It’s not often they can all agree. Their opposition to EBacc Certificates reflects Labour’s concerns – that the plans are narrow, risk creating a two tier system and are not fit for the 21st Century.

As the former Education Secretary Lord Baker put it “The EBacc is exactly the same to the exam I sat in 1951 when I was 16, the School Certificate. And that was changed, even in 1951, because it simply wasn’t broad enough for a large number of children. And only seven per cent of young people went on to post-16 education, I was part of a privileged elite. And the EBacc is a throwback to that.”

Instead of seeking to recreate the past, the central question we need to address is: how do we reform our education system so that it equips young people with the skills, knowledge, resilience and character that they need to play their part both as active citizens and as future business leaders and entrepreneurs?

Tim Oates, who has been advising the Government on the national curriculum, has talked to me about Britain’s strength in skills, innovation and creativity. We need to ensure we play to our strengths, rather than undermine them.

For me, strengthening the skills of young people in Britain is a great patriotic cause. It should be seen as part of our economic mission – at the heart of our drive to maintain our competitive edge in the world.

The problem, as Tim has noted, is that our vocational education system was designed in this country after the Second World War only to be exported to Germany, where today, it continues to prosper.

Today, Britain risks losing the global race on skills. We need to be as strong as Germany and Switzerland on vocational education, and as competitive as Singapore and Japan on Maths. Our future national competitiveness is at stake.

Rab Butler’s 1944 Education Act sought to make progress. The introduction of technical schools – known as County Colleges was set to offer 15 to 18 year olds technical education to supplement their apprenticeships. But this ambition was never realised.

Ever since we packaged up and sent off our post-war blueprint for technical and practical education, successive governments have failed to deliver the step change that our education system and economy need.

While Britain was once the workshop of the world, we have seen a de-industrial revolution in recent decades. When Margaret Thatcher came to power, manufacturing accounted for almost 30 per cent of Britain’s national income and employed 6.8 million people. By 2010, it was down to just over 11 per cent of the economy, with a workforce of only 2.5 million.

Since the 1980s, there has been a focus on school standards and expanding Higher Education. However, successive Governments have not done enough to help the 50% of young people who don’t go to university. We would now focus our reformist zeal on the skills agenda – driving up the standards of vocational and technical courses by getting employers to accredit them.

That is why Labour has placed vocational education front and centre in our plans for One Nation Education.

My fear is that without a clear drive and focus on raising the standards of practical and technical skills in this country, we will condemn ourselves to a decade of economic decline.

If we look at the leading countries for vocational education, it becomes clear the sort of step change that we need in this country.

In Switzerland, which I plan to visit later this year, nearly two-thirds of Swiss upper-secondary students enrol in vocational education and training. In a study of the 2000 cohort of Swiss youth, vocational study was the choice of 42 per cent of the highest academic achievers.

In Germany, around half of all young people under the age of 22 have successfully completed an apprenticeship, and they are offered by around one in three companies.

According to the OECD, the dual system in Germany “offers qualifications in a broad spectrum of professions and flexibly adapts to the changing needs of the labour market” with a “high degree of engagement and ownership on the part of employers and other social partners.”

If we are to match countries like Germany and Switzerland we need a major reform programme of vocational courses and qualifications.

The CBI has argued that improving the quality of vocational courses could add as much as a percentage point to economic growth.

Instead of having courses designed by politicians, Labour would involve businesses in accrediting the quality of vocational courses as part of a new gold standard qualification at 18, a Tech Bacc.

One gold standard qualification that exists today is the Engineering Diploma. In fact you could say it was a Rolls Royce qualification – having been designed by the company along with the Royal Academy of Engineering, BAE Systems and JCB. Sadly, the Government decided to downgrade the qualification from being worth 5 GCSEs to only 1.

Bizarrely, the Chancellor now says they intend to reinstate a diploma worth 4 GCSEs, but only from 2016. This u-turn illustrates the incoherent and shambolic approach to vocational education from the Government. To secure Britain’s economic future, we must do better.

We need to give students a clear route so they can progress. There are too many young people who go through a revolving door of low qualifications, suppressing their potential.

Alison Wolf noted in her report that 350,000 young people gain little or no value from the education system. Simply getting a few level 1 or level 2 qualifications often leaves students at risk of ending up not in employment, education or training or finding that there is little return from the labour market for such a low level set of qualifications.

Incredibly, the system can actually reduce their potential. Young males with Level 2 NVQs actually earn less than their contemporaries with fewer qualifications. That is staggering if you think about it for a moment – their courses have made them worse off.

There are complicated factors behind this revolving door of low qualifications. Prior attainment and engagement in the early years plays its part, as do wider social and economic issues. But getting rid of careers advice, and the EMA have played their part.

We need to get the incentives right. We must give young people a clear route and a gold standard to aim for at 18. One that is respected by employers, universities and parents.

So Labour’s Tech Bacc will provide a rigorous set of qualifications to motivate young people to progress well beyond Level 2.

We also need to provide more quality, high level apprenticeships from which school and college leavers can progress into. I was interested to note the recommendation of 3 year apprenticeships in Policy Exchange’s report this week.

On the Government’s watch, while the number of apprenticeships has increased, not enough have been of high enough quality, and too few have gone to young people.

Often apprenticeship starts have been about re-badging training courses for existing older workers, rather than giving young people a foot on the employment ladder.

So Labour would engage employers in designing high quality apprenticeships, giving them a greater say in spending £1 billion worth of funding to target apprenticeships at young people.

We would ensure that groups of employers, coming together in regions, sectors and supply chains, have the resources and powers they need to improve training. These would be powerful, employer-led partnerships working with our FE colleges and bringing together industry stakeholders, building on our landscape of employer associations, professional bodies, Sector Skills Councils, Local Enterprise Partnerships and local chambers of commerce.

Nearly half of employers say that the prospect of trained staff being poached by rival firms deters them from training employees. So Labour will ask business what incentives they need to ensure they can deliver the expansion in apprenticeships we need to rebuild the economy. It would then be up to groups of businesses themselves to decide which of these powers they will use.

We want to see a new ‘Fast Track’ for apprentices into the civil service, matching the Fast Stream for graduates. And Labour would make it a requirement for all large firms with government contracts to provide apprenticeships.

We also have to raise the status and profile of apprenticeships. Too many young people go through school without anyone providing quality advice to them on an apprenticeship. Given the reduction in funding for information and guidance, it is no wonder.

Policy Exchange has brought the challenges to light by illustrating that nearly one in three young people drop out of their A Level courses, reflecting the fact they may not have had the best advice to begin with.

Labour are looking at how we can improve the quality of advice to young people, including better awareness of apprenticeships.

I want to see schools and colleges providing Apprenticeship Taster Days to teenagers. If pupils are able to take a few days out of the classroom to visit universities, then I don’t see why the same principle shouldn’t apply to apprenticeships.

Young people from age 14 should be able to get the opportunity to visit companies who have apprenticeships to see what is involved in the programme, and understand the training and career opportunities open to them.

I want children to aspire to a high quality apprenticeship, just as much as they might aspire to go to Oxbridge. It might surprise you, but in fact a high quality apprenticeship can be more competitive. In 2010, BT had nearly received nearly 24,000 applications for 221 apprenticeship places, more than the 17,000 applications to Oxford University, which has around 3,000 undergraduate places.

I also want to strengthen the relationship between employers and schools and colleges.

This includes businesses being involved in the design of the curriculum to ensure young people are work-ready, and more local employers sitting on school and college governing bodies.

I am also delighted to announce today that Labour is looking to reform the provision of work experience in schools and colleges.

The Government have sidelined work experience, ending the statutory duty for schools to provide work experience for 14 to 16 year olds.

Instead, I want all schools to develop partnerships with local employers. At secondary school that means offering a quality work experience placement linked to the curriculum. The work experience placement must be more than just two weeks of photocopying and tea making. It must be a rigorous programme providing experience of workplace skills and followed up with teaching and learning in the classroom.

And Labour would go further. We are looking at how businesses can provide ‘work discovery’ programmes to inspire primary school children about the world of work. This would involve businesses conducting visits to primary schools to talk about their sector, and organising factory and office trips for pupils.

There are already innovative programmes happening to inspire primary school pupils about the world of work. The YES Programme is a work-related teaching resource that provides bespoke films and lesson materials to primary schools. It provides primary pupils with a window into the world of work, directly linked to the curriculum.

And there is Primary Engineer, a non profit programme which encourages primary pupils to consider careers in STEM related professions, by providing teacher training, interactive resources, and competitions for school children.

It is clear if we are to develop a generation of entrepreneurs and innovators we need to capture their imagination early.

Creating a symbiotic relationship between schools and businesses is one of the tasks of Labour’s One Nation Skills Taskforce.

Led by Professor Chris Husbands from the Institute of Education, we are taking advice from distinguished figures from business and skills. The Taskforce’s remit spans 14 – 19 education and will flesh out rigorous academic and vocational routes in order to improve the confidence of young people, parents, education providers and universities.

One of the areas we need to consider is how to improve the quality of careers advice and guidance to young people.

Since the Government decided to give responsibility to schools for careers advice, we have seen 8 in 10 schools dramatically cut the careers advice they provide, according to a survey by Careers England.

Today, the Education Select Committee has produced a withering assessment of the Government’s record on careers advice. They say that both the quality and quantity of careers advice and guidance has deteriorated, at a time when it is most needed.

The removal of face to face careers advice by the Government could be hugely damaging in the long term. I’m interested to note the recommendations by the committee to restore face to face provision and for schools to provide an annual careers plan so they can be held accountable to parents for the advice they provide. As the committee notes, young people deserve far better than what is currently on offer.

To get young people ready for the modern world of work we have to overcome the crude divides which set young people irreversibly down either the vocational route or the academic route.

Vocational versus academic is one of the many false choices in education. Overcoming the divide is critical to building a One Nation Education System.

Michael Barber, in his recently published essay Oceans of Innovation challenged educationalists and policy makers to reject the sort of ‘either or’ thinking that has held this country back.

Labour would provide more flexibility for young people to do both traditional and practical courses.

As part of our reforms to exams and the curriculum I want to ensure that there are more opportunities for young people to switch between different courses, to ensure they play to their strengths and get a broad and balanced education.

That means schools developing partnerships with FE colleges and employers to ensure young people doing GCSEs and A Levels get access to equipment, expertise and training in vocational subjects. I have seen this first-hand in schools like the City Academy Norwich which has a partnership with their local FE college.

It also means ensuring that those who get our new Tech Bacc at 18 see university as a possible option for their future as much as employment or a high quality apprenticeship.

I want to ensure there is rigour in the core subjects such as Maths and English, but not confined to them. Rigour must be applied right across the curriculum, so we will drive up the standard of vocational courses and academic ones.

As well as matching countries like Germany and Switzerland on skills, we need to ensure we are competing with the East Asian nations like Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong on the core subjects.

That means improving the quality of teaching and learning in English and Maths. We did much in Government to improve standards in literacy and numeracy.

At the end of primary school, eight in ten pupils achieved the required level 4 in English and a similar number in Maths in 2010, compared to only six in ten pupils in 1997.

And at the end of secondary school, the proportion of students getting a C grade or higher in A Level English went from just over half in 1997 to nearly eight in ten. And at Maths the proportion of students getting a C grade or higher went from six in ten, to eight in ten.

Ah – that’s just grade inflation I hear you cry. Well, not according to the TIMSS independent international survey conducted by Boston College. This shows that England was ranked 25th in the world for Maths in 1995, but in the most recent study in 2011 we were ranked 9th, the second highest in Europe.

There’s some way to go still, but one of the programmes I am most proud of were the ones that allowed one to one tuition in English and Maths for primary school pupils – known as ‘Every Child a Reader’ and ‘Every Child Counts’.

These were innovative programmes, backed by solid research evidence and supported by businesses like KPMG.

Unfortunately they have been cut by the Government, despite the fact they got a return on investment of 17 to 1. Already we are seeing 9,000 fewer primary school pupils – a 40% drop – get access to specialist reading tuition.

As well as focussing on the early years, I want to see all young people continuing to study English and Maths to 18. We know, as Professor Alison Wolf observed, that almost half of young people are leaving formal education at 16 without reaching the expected level of reading, writing and arithmetic. Of those who stay on after 16, only 3% go on to reach that level.

The Government claims it is addressing the Wolf report, but in fact it only provides re-sits for those who don’t get a C grade at GCSE. I want to go much further and create new courses and qualifications so all pupils, whatever route they take continue studying English and Maths to 18.

There are a lot of pupils the Government is overlooking. Of those pupils who get a B or a C grade in GCSE Maths, only 16% will go on to study AS-Level Maths. Put another way, every year there are more than a quarter of a million students who achieve a grade B or C at GCSE, but who do not, or cannot, continue studying the subject.

Labour is examining how we could create new courses and qualifications for those who want to continue studying English and Maths, but don’t feel a whole A-Level is the right option for them.

We are one of the only countries in the developed world that doesn’t require pupils to study Maths and their own language until they leave school. Only one in five students in England studies Maths to the age of 18, whereas the figure in the US, New Zealand and Singapore is over six in ten, and in Germany and Hong Kong it is over nine in ten.

The raising of the education participation age, which will increase to 17 this year and to 18 in 2015 provides us with an opportunity to fix this once and for all.

The University Technical Colleges, which started under Labour, prove that it can be done. They require Maths and English to age 18, and are proving popular and successful.

If you want to succeed in life, you have to be confident and secure in the foundations.

But you also have to play to your strengths.

Our strength as a nation is when we combine a drive for academic rigour with the creativity and innovation that powered our success through history.

It is a strength that will only continue if we have schools, colleges, a curriculum and exams that are forward looking and not regressive.

If we end that false divide between the academic and the vocational. Ensuring young people are inspired about the world of work from an early age.

With a relentless drive for reform, across the whole education system.

Thank you.