Matthew Hancock's speech on a skills revolution

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Speech at the Sutton Trust international summit on professional, technical and vocational education for young people.

I’m delighted to be here at the Sutton Trust. Your mission - to show that birth is not fate - your belief in the power of learning as social justice is one of the things that drives me in politics.

So I want to thank you for everything that you do.

Today I want to talk today about the vital task we are undertaking, to ensure all young people – all young people – can transcend the circumstances of their birth, and achieve their full potential.

This is a core insight of the centre right, that justice means earned reward and that all should be free to realise their dreams. This is what drives our radical vocational education reforms.

Just look at the evidence of why radical reform was needed.

It’s true those leaving school or university in the aftermath of the great recession have had to fight much harder to break into the labour market.

As early as 2004 youth unemployment was on the rise - up 40% in the first decade of this century.

But when I travel around the country, meeting young people in apprenticeships and FE colleges, I meet people taking responsibility for their own future, determined to get the skills to realise their aspirations.

The generation who will turn 18 next year cite jobs and skills as their top priority. It’s no surprise, given what they saw happen to their elder brothers and sisters.

But they have many reasons to be hopeful.

There are 135,000 more young people in work, education or training than 12 months ago.

Long-term youth unemployment is down by 25,000 on last year.

The number of young people claiming out of work benefits has fallen every month for the last 23 months.

But these jobs figures – encouraging as they are - aren’t the whole picture.

Our mission in government isn’t just to get young people into work, but to give them the tools they need to get on: to be masters of their fate, rather than victims of chance.

And I believe an apprenticeship is one of the best ways we have of doing that.

We know the economic benefits; 96% of employers offering apprenticeships think their business has benefitted, around 70% report improved workplace productivity.

Yet apprenticeships aren’t just about getting formal skills and knowledge into the workplace.

When employers are recruiting, research shows that 45% say work experience is ‘significant’. This is because firms value workplace attitudes and behaviours which can’t be taught in a textbook: self-discipline, managing relationships, thinking on your feet when something goes wrong - skills that can only be learnt on the job.

I have an apprenticeship programme in my parliamentary office and I’ve seen how apprenticeships can turn shy teenagers into confident young professionals - with the skills to impress any employer, even the Prime Minister.

We want apprenticeships to be a ladder of opportunity, with many rungs, which anyone can climb, to the top.

We are building that ladder of opportunity. And when I say it must go to the top, I mean the top.

Yesterday, I saw an apprentice I know called Terry. He comes from a Welsh working class background; aged 11 he tried for the local grammar and didn’t get in.

Seeing he was ambitious, his school encouraged him to do an apprenticeship with the best local employer – a firm manufacturing parts for the car and airplane industries.

And what happened to Terry?

Terry Morgan CBE is now Chairman of Crossrail, Europe’s biggest infrastructure project.

I met him at the site of the new National College in Manufacturing Technology, near Coventry.

He advises on the new High Speed Rail College, the next in a series of high-status specialised National Colleges in sectors with strategic skills gaps.

I want Terry Morgan’s exceptional story to become unexceptional - for apprenticeships to become an established route to the heights of career success.

And today I want to talk about how we’re creating that ladder of opportunity.

First, we’ve set about creating a truly rigorous vocational education system, because each rung has to bear the weight of the higher expectations we have for our young people.

When we came into government we found thousands of so-called apprenticeships which involved no job, others lasting less than 6 months and more which required no off-the-job training.

So we’ve changed the rules. Now every apprenticeship has to be a paid job in a real workplace, lasting at least 12 months and involving meaningful training, both on and off the job.

Yet quantity has held up, even as we’ve driven up quality.

We are on track to see 2 million new apprenticeships before the election.

There are more, not less, young people starting an apprenticeship than in 2010 – almost 50,000 more. In the last year alone the number of school leavers going into an apprenticeship has increased by 15%.

The numbers of under-25s taking an Advanced Apprenticeships – equivalent to A Levels – has jumped by over 40% since 2010 and the number of young people taking Higher Apprenticeships – equivalent to a degree – has more than doubled since the election.

You can now become a lawyer, an accountant or even a space engineer apprentice. Apprenticeships really do help you reach for the skies.

Outside of apprenticeships, Alison Wolf’s report found 350,000 young people had been studying for vocational qualifications which employers didn’t value.

We have implemented every one of her recommendations. We’re replacing low-value vocational courses with technical awards. These new qualifications, designed in partnership with employers, will teach 14 to 16 year olds practical, industry-relevant skills, and will be genuinely equivalent to a GCSE.

From September we’re introducing Tech Levels, for 16 to 19 year olds who have a clear idea of what kind of career they would like to pursue. Tech Levels – all signed off by employers - will equip young people with the specialist knowledge they need for a job in occupations ranging from engineering, to computing, hospitality, to accountancy.

These, together with a core maths qualification and an extended project, will count towards the new TechBacc measure, taught across the country including in some of the 50 new UTCs.

And we’ve got more degree level technical study too. 13,000 Higher Apprenticeships, up from 1,700 in 2010.

They can get you to be fully qualified in accounting, space engineering or the law.

And over 200 Colleges teach higher education. Technical degrees offered by the likes of Newcastle College, Bradford College and many more. They already exist.

Providing a more rigorous vocational education is the first part of building the ladder.

The second part is making sure the ladder stands firm against the winds of global competition and technological change.

That means ensuring the skills system is responsive to the needs of employers, reflecting their priorities not a set of Whitehall targets.

Which is why we are undertaking the most far reaching reforms of the apprenticeship system since Lord Hunt of Wirral introduced modern apprenticeships in 1994.

My favourite analogy for our apprenticeship reforms is the digital switchover of television. Our current apprenticeships programme, like analogue television, is popular, successful and much loved by many.

But technology is moves on quickly and we have a unique opportunity to switch over; creating a high definition programme that will lead the world in the decades to come.

And all this is being driven by one simple insight.

For too long, the antennae of the apprenticeship system have been pointed towards a complex skills bureaucracy but are re-tuning the system to pick up the clear signals from employers about what they need.

We’re encouraging employers to work with training providers to design high quality courses that will deliver the skills they want: a new social contract, with the taxpayer, employers and apprentices working in partnership to secure Britain’s economic future.

And this is fast becoming a reality across the country.

More than 400 employers have already taken part as trailblazers for the new apprenticeship standards.

We’ve asked companies large and small - household names in sectors from food to finance - to rewrite the apprenticeship rulebook: shorter, clearer, better standards, written for employers by employers.

These include rigorous assessment systems ensuring every successful apprentice has the skills and know-how to be a well-rounded, fully qualified professional.

And these tests will be graded so that apprentices - as much as their peers on degree courses - have a real incentive to push themselves.

The first 11 new apprenticeship standards were produced by these companies in March, creating a world-class basis for occupations from software developers to engineers, aerospace fitters to lab technicians.

By September 2017, every apprenticeship start will be on a new employer-designed standard.

This is a tremendous challenge - but the prize is great - for the country, for employers and for apprentices themselves.

The final part of building this ladder of opportunity is ensuring that everyone can climb on.

The bottom rung must be within reach of those with low skills or no skills - which is why we introduced traineeships for 16 to 24 year olds who didn’t gain basic qualifications at school.

Traineeships combine work experience and education, with a strong focus on English and maths, to give young people the skills and savvy to apply for an apprenticeship or get into work.

We’ve hit the ground running, with providers reporting 7,400 traineeship starts for the first three quarters of this academic year. Over 500 employers are already on board offering traineeships, including Nissan and Siemens.

But we also want to see more people scaling the top rungs too: acquiring high-level skills to achieve their full potential.

We want it to become the norm that all school leavers either go on to university or take up an apprenticeship.

And we want higher apprenticeships to be in direct competition with universities for the most ambitious students.

I want to tell you about a Healthcare Assistant Apprentice I met at St Thomas’ last year.

It was one of the most powerful meetings I’ve had in this job. She had started off as a cleaner. She has worked her way up, improved her English and Maths, and got onto the apprenticeship programme.

Her lifetime’s ambition was to be a nurse. I could see, from the short time I spent with her, she could be a brilliant nurse. Caring and compassionate, she was bright and clearly hard working.

The problem wasn’t her ability or drive.

But under the old rules, the degree course you need to become a nurse didn’t recognise the Apprenticeship as an entry requirement.

For her the ladder was broken.

I’m proud to say we’re changing that.

We are introducing a full degree level nursing apprenticeship, building that ladder to help people like her to progress to become a fully qualified nurse.

The great liberal philosopher John Rawls famously proposed a thought experiment - the veil of ignorance - in which the test of a good society is one in which you would be happy to be born, without knowing anything in advance about your abilities or social position.

That society is exactly what our apprenticeship reforms are intended to help create. I am privileged to be asked to help to build it, and you here at the Sutton Trust are doing so too.

A ladder of opportunity extending from the classroom to the boardroom, built by businesses not bureaucrats, getting more out of people because it expects more of them, a route out of poverty, a route on and up into the high productivity, high skills, highly paid economy, and crucially, this is a mission for social justice, to spread opportunity and to ensure that everyone - every citizen of our country - can reach their potential.