Thank you very much for that kind introduction.
It’s an enormous pleasure to be here today to celebrate the start of National Apprenticeship Week 2014.
Now strictly speaking, I should start by taking issue with the title of today’s event.
And with a certain programme - and a certain Peer of the Realm - which have done more to bring apprenticeships into disrepute than any politician could imagine.
But I wouldn’t dare incur the wrath of Lord Sugar - nor the withering lip curl of Nick and Karen.
Because we’re not here today to talk about those apprentices but about real apprenticeships, new and improved for the 21st century.
I want to mention today the history of apprenticeships.
The reforms we’re making to drive up standards.
And how all of you - and everyone at the BBC - can help.
Breaking the stranglehold on social mobility
After all, why do apprenticeships matter?
Yes, they’re important for our economy, and good value for the taxpayer.
But centrally they are about spreading opportunity and about giving everyone the chance to reach their potential.
Seventeen years ago, Andrew Adonis - now a lofty Lord, then a (relatively) lowly policy adviser - published ‘A Class Act’.
In it, he forensically skewered the myth of Britain’s classless society.
He and fellow author Stephen Pollard pointed to the rise, ever since the 1960s, of what they dubbed “a new elite of top professionals and managers, at once meritocratic yet exclusive”.
They warned of this phenomenon in 1997 - and, contrary to the words of that administration’s theme song, things would only get worse.
The glittering prizes of society went increasingly to a tiny, self-selecting minority.
Overwhelmingly, university-educated - indeed, often from just a handful of world-famous universities.
And overwhelmingly the alumni of some of the most ambitious, academic schools in this country: which is to say, in the world.
This educational elite went on to nab a huge proportion of the top jobs in society.
This led directly to what I’ll call the ‘Gove question’: when will a state educated man, or woman, finally make it to edit the Guardian?
So we want things to change. And there are signs that they’re starting to.
In recent years, the percentage of young people in England going to university has reached a record high.
Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are now 70% more likely to enter university than in 2004.
This is a credit to the hard work and dedication of thousands of teachers, all over the country.
It’s a sign of success in turning around failing schools and giving people from the toughest backgrounds access to the same sort of ambitious, stretching education as their wealthier peers.
And it proves that new tuition fees - a government loan, only to be repaid once you start earning - are not scaring young people off.
On the contrary - even since our new tuition fees were introduced, application rates have reached new highs - in particular for young people from the poorest backgrounds.
Because they understand that investing in their future - and not paying a penny back before they earn £21,000 a year - is a one way bet.
Apprenticeships - then and now
But this university dominance wasn’t always the case.
Back in the 1950s, the main route into many jobs - in industry, engineering, construction, and all sorts of other businesses - was an apprenticeship.
Ex-apprentices like Sir Anthony Bamford, chairman of JCB; John Caudwell, founder of Phones4U; Charlie Mullins, founder of Pimlico Plumbers and many others, all started their careers as apprentices - and went on to reach the very top of their professions.
One in 5 employers on the City and Guilds list of the Top 100 Apprenticeship Employers currently have former apprentices on the board and former apprentices, on average, make up almost a third of their senior management.
But that old-style apprenticeship model was based overwhelmingly in heavy industry. In 1950, a full 60% of apprenticeships were in manufacturing.
They were unprepared and unsuited for vast swathes of the post-industrial economy - and when the world changed, they no longer worked.
By the time I was growing up - in the 1980s - apprenticeships had withered on the vine.
As universities expanded, more employers started to demand a degree - so more young people decided to go to university.
Those without a degree found it harder to access the best jobs; harder to break into the professions; harder to succeed without the same qualifications as everyone else.
And as the old, heavy industries declined, by the early 1990s, apprenticeship numbers had dropped down to their lowest ever.
Education as the key to success
But things are finally balancing out.
Because the only way to effect wholesale change is to break open the routes to success.
To make social mobility a reality - and to allow young people from every background an equal chance to reach the top.
That means improving schools, so that every child in the country - no matter where they live, or what their background - enjoys the sort of high-quality, rich, rounded education hitherto reserved only for the very rich.
It means driving up the standard of qualifications, both academic and vocational - so every young person knows that their hard work and commitment will lead to qualifications which command respect among employers, universities and colleges.
It means opening up the routes into professions - showing that a university degree isn’t the only way to start a top flight career - and that apprenticeships, traineeships and vocational training can be just as rewarding, and can lead just as far.
It means a new norm - for every young person finishing full time education to go to university, or to start an apprenticeship, knowing that either option will give a fantastic start to their future.
Our job in government is not to push people one way or the other, but to ensure there are good choices for both.
Driving up standards, rigour and responsiveness
When apprenticeships hit the bottom of the curve, in the 1990s, the government of the day brought in crucial reforms - introducing paid, on the job training, leading to nationally recognised qualifications, across more industries than ever before.
And since 2010, numbers are sharply up.
We took urgent steps to make sure that every single apprenticeship was higher quality, more rigorous and more responsive to the needs of employers.
Endlessly complicated bureaucratic barriers preventing companies from taking on apprentices have been simplified or removed.
Now, there’s just a simple, 3-step hiring process - accessible to small and medium sized enterprises, as well as big business.
And some of this country’s leading employers and trade bodies are taking the lead - as trailblazers - in designing new apprenticeship standards.
Already quality - and demand - are rising. Last year, over half a million people started an apprenticeship - almost twice as many as in 2009 to 2010; and more than 3 times as many as in 2002 to 2003.
During 2012 to 2013 there were 868,700 people undertaking an apprenticeship - the highest recorded in modern history.
And apprenticeships are spreading to reflect the modern economy. In total, apprenticeships now cover more than 170 industries.
Of course, that still means engineering and manufacturing.
But also advertising and nuclear decommissioning, publishing and catering, arts, media, retail, law, IT and much, much more.
Just last week, I was lucky enough to meet the first ever cohort of space engineering apprentices at the National Space Centre, in Leicester - who were hugely excited about starting their training this week.
Even the Civil Service - historically the home of Sir Humphrey - now offers 2 fast tracks into the heart of government, 1 for university graduates, 1 for apprentices.
BBC is leading the way
Standing here today, in another bastion of tradition - the oldest and largest national broadcaster in the world - it’s a pleasure to see the BBC working with the wider industry and leading the way.
Committed to hiring 170 apprentices a year by 2014 - 2 years ahead of target.
Launching your Stephen Lawrence BBC Training Programme - in partnership with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust and Job Centres - giving young people not yet ready for apprenticeships or other jobs the chance to take up a traineeship, to get meaningful work experience and extra training in English, maths, and how to get on in the workplace. Traineeships are a stepping stone to future success for young people, businesses and the wider economy - and they really help to unlock young people’s potential.
It’s great that the BBC has taken a lead, with industry partners, in designing and launching 2 entirely new apprenticeships in technology and production management - supported by the government’s employer ownership of skills pilots.
Also great news are the announcements we’ve just heard from Tony Hall about the apprenticeships in journalism, business and legal, launching soon - on top of the BBC’s biggest ever, the Local Apprenticeship for 45 young people in local radio stations all around the UK.
And it’s fantastic that you’re working with us and other leading broadcasters to develop new apprenticeships in your sector.
Winning friends and influencing people
I’ve seen for myself that success begets success - that hiring apprentices makes an organisation more enthusiastic about apprentices, and more likely to hire more in the future.
It’s certainly something I’ve noticed with MPs - as soon as an MP gets an apprentice, they become passionate evangelists for apprenticeships, inside and outside Parliament.
But they’re not the only ones
82% of employers with apprentices say they would recommend the scheme to other employers.
And 89% of employers surveyed said that if they were just starting out in their career now, they would choose to do an apprenticeship.
This is a huge vote of confidence - and a huge endorsement of our changes to the system.
And as a cheerleader for change
But there’s still further to go.
And that’s where everyone here has a role to play.
Because the BBC is better qualified than almost any other employer to help raise the profile - and the prestige - of apprenticeships.
Not just those working in your own organisation; not just Lord Sugar’s acolytes striding purposefully up escalators, holding their phones out in front of their faces.
But real apprentices, working in real companies – all over the country, from all sorts of backgrounds.
They are the ones who could and should be featured in all sorts of BBC programming, showing young people all over the country what opportunities are available to them, and where those opportunities could lead.
I’d love to see more apprentices being shown across programmes from ‘Today’ to ‘Top Gear’; ‘Holby City’ to ‘Horizon’.
Because apprenticeships - and the young people who take them - are becoming a part of our national life.
You can help us give them an even higher profile.
Again and again, my department has noticed an incredible spike in interest whenever apprenticeships are mentioned in news bulletins and current affairs programmes.
And that interest is overwhelmingly positive.
Like apprentices themselves, and their friends and family, proudly getting in touch to explain how much they’re enjoying their apprenticeships, and how much they’re learning every day.
Apprenticeships are about busting open opportunity, promoting social mobility, and of course preparing the economy for the jobs of the future.
As we heard just yesterday, apprenticeships boosted UK business by £1.8 billion last year - and, on average, each apprentice delivered a boost of £2,000 to their employer.
Today’s apprentice could be tomorrow’s director of the board; or tomorrow’s Director-General, come to that.
So we must take every opportunity to show off the excellent work taking place, all over the country; and to give young apprentices confidence that their choice has just as much kudos - and just as bright a future - as any other.