It’s great as Shadow Skills and FE Minister to celebrate this fourth annual Apprenticeships week. Looking back on Labour’s record in Government, our revitalisation of Apprenticeships remains for me one of our most substantial achievements.

Lifting the number of starts from a mere 65,000 in 1996/97 to just under 280,000 was buttressed by the then Secretary of State John Denham launching the National Apprenticeship Service alongside National Apprenticeship Week.

Being the Shadow Minister covering Apprenticeships has allowed me to continue my previous work as chair of Parliament’s Skills Group and on the Select Committee – championing both skills and the FE sector and arguing for a continued focus on take-up, progression and quality.

It has been a particular pleasure to see the contribution that FE Colleges have been making countrywide engaging with employers and apprentices alike.

Having worked with John Hayes in the Skills Group, I don’t doubt his longstanding commitment to the vocational route and desire as Minister to build on this strong Apprenticeship legacy we left.

But there’s much more his Government, BIS and especially the Department for Education should be doing to expand access and safeguard quality.

The vast bulk of their expansion has now been shown to be on the back of 25-plus apprentices, many following courses previously covered under Train to Gain. In many cases these have value, but they do little to tackle the huge challenge of the sceptre of a generation of jobless young people.

That’s why I’ve just been putting forward ideas from Labour to help do just that. We recognise Apprenticeship strategy has to go hand in hand with boosting growth in the regions on the back of an active industrial strategy – which this Government has failed to do. Skills and growth policy must be linked on the ground.
It’s no good Government pushing apprenticeships, if there’s not enough pull from employees. We also need to see FE Colleges as a crucial link here – which is why Labour believes they must take a central role in the new Local Enterprise Partnerships.

We’re calling on Government to make a step change in the quantity of quality apprenticeships available to young people.

That includes a major expansion via SMEs – incentives for large companies to buddy up with supply-chain smaller partners in taking them on.

We would use the unspent and so far unfocused Growth and Innovation Fund – and use the £60 million there to boost the work of training organisations – GTAs and ATAs – and to enable FE colleges and learning providers to work effectively with HE and LEPs to build collaboration helping more businesses to take on apprentices as part of local growth strategies.

There’s much more [the] Government, BIS and especially the Department for Education should be doing to expand access and safeguard quality”

This builds on our existing commitment to ensure all public procurement contracts handed out over £1million come with taking on apprentices.

This would expand the range and reach for apprenticeships and create the new opportunities young people are crying out for. Expanding the quantity of apprenticeships must not come at the expense of their quality.

Already BIS Ministers’ race for numbers has brought some casualties here – that needs to be remedied urgently, not just for 16-18 years but also for the cohort beyond it – as I urged the Government in Parliament’s debate on apprenticeships before Christmas – with new safeguards on minimum course duration.

They need to take heed of what the Select Committee’s Apprenticeship enquiry will say – and make sure the unexpected departures at the top in the National Apprenticeship Service and Skills Funding Agency do not throw up further problems.

The priority must be for a sharper view of what Apprenticeships are for, with clear progression strategies – including into HE – and real jobs on completion.

Gordon Marsden, shadow minister for further education, skills and regional growth