Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo




Inquiry into the Way Forward for Apprenticeships

11 March 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Ms Sue Ramsey (Chairperson)
Mr Robin Newton (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Paul Butler
Rev Dr Robert Coulter
Mr Alex Easton
Mr David Hilditch
Mr William Irwin
Ms Anna Lo
Mrs Claire McGill

Mr Laurence Downey ) Alliance of Sector Skills Councils
Ms Tory Kerley )
Ms Deirdre Stewart ) Confederation of British Industry

The Chairperson:

The Committee will now take evidence from Laurence Downey and Tory Kerley of the Alliance of Sector skills Councils (ASSC) as part of its inquiry into the way forward for apprenticeships. You are very welcome. I will not go into my preamble, because we are pressed for time. Therefore, we will move to your presentation, which will be followed by a question-and-answer session.

Mr Laurence Downey (Alliance of Sector Skills Councils):

I appreciate that everyone is extremely busy at the moment. Thank you for the invitation. We welcome the opportunity to update the Committee on our thoughts on the future of apprenticeships. I have provided members with a short paper and a slide presentation, which highlights the key points, so I will go straight into it.

I do not need to tell members about sector skills councils (SSCs), as we have appeared before the Committee on previous occasions. However, I will use the opportunity to say that, from April 2008, the way in which the sector skills councils work collectively has been brought together, through the creation of a new organisation called the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils. We all come together to speak as one voice, to promote the work that we do and to work in a consistent way across all our constituencies.

I transferred from the Sector Skills Development Agency to be the manager of the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils in Northern Ireland. That is a little bit of background information about us and about why we are called that and also what we are trying to achieve.

Speaking as one voice, I will provide our comments on apprenticeships. By way of background, we asked all the sector skills councils about how they sensed things stand at the moment and about how they see the way ahead as far as apprenticeships are concerned. We then tried to pick out those things that were consistent across all the SSCs.

The first point that we want to make is that the journey over the last few years from Jobskills to where we are today with apprenticeships has been a very positive one. The Minister, this Committee, the Department and the sector skills councils and others have worked very hard to reshape the offer, which is ApprenticeshipsNI, into something really positive, and we want to acknowledge that. The Minister recently announced that the target of 10,000 apprentices in training had been achieved. So, there are lots of good things to report.

The branding of ApprenticeshipsNI has been very distinct; it really helps with the promotion of apprenticeships and has some status associated with it. From our point of view, employed status from day one is very important. We believe that that is the way to enhance achievement rates. The introduction of all-age and part-time opportunities to do apprenticeships has been a very welcome development, as has increased flexibility around both level 2 and level 3. Apprenticeships are, increasingly, forming part of a way ahead with regard to career progression, with opportunities to move on into higher education, and so on. However, we still feel that there are some opportunities for further developments, and that is primarily what we are here to talk about.

Tory Kerley is from Skillsmart Retail. I will mention some general points, and Tory will pick up on some of those points specifically from her sectoral point of view, to give the Committee a flavour of what that means.

The essential-skills component of apprenticeships is a recurring theme with SSCs. There are concerns still about the way in which essential skills is delivered within the framework. Some of the requirements for 40 hours of study for each of the key components of essential skills creates some difficulties and does not necessarily prove to be as attractive to employers as we would like. I am sure that Tory will return to that point.

We can all work collectively. It is much harder to improve the whole marketing and recruitment of apprenticeships, particularly in how we recruit and support the recruitment of apprenticeships for our SME community.

There must be increased flexibility in the contracting model, and we must find different ways and approaches to deal with different sectors, both the large and small companies.

There are concerns about funding. The funding model, currently, is a back-ended one and there has been interest from many SSCs to see whether there could be increased upfront incentives for employers to encourage them to take apprentices. It is inevitable, given the journey that we have come on from the Jobskills programme, that an enormous amount of inspection and audit still seems to be carried out. Although we understand that at the start-up we need to be clear on what we are, and are not, achieving, it is hoped that, with a bit of stability in the programme and some common sense, that can settle down and people can get on with the job, as opposed to being diverted to prepare for what can be quite intensive inspection regimes. However, we understand the reasoning behind that.

As regards specific developments, the introduction of public-sector funding for apprenticeships would be important in addressing some of the needs in the public sector for skills development.

Those are the main development areas that we have identified. I will pick up on some of the general points at the end, and I will then invite Tory to comment.

Careers advice and guidance is essential to ensure that people make a proper choice, whether they are taking an apprenticeship route or another route. We were pleased with the announcement of the new all-age careers education, information, advice and guidance strategy. Hopefully, as that is implemented, we will be much more clever in how we signpost individuals to proper and secure routes for developing their skills.

It is an age-old problem and one that may never go away, but the parity between vocational and academic qualifications is something that we must continue to work at to ensure that we secure professional and technical skills in our workforce through the apprenticeship and vocational route.

I mentioned science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, as I know it is a strong and important topic. STEM apprenticeships will be crucial to the future of the economy. Can we perhaps be a little cleverer in how we target STEM and how it is funded, to make it a more attractive apprentice package? Should there be incentives or opportunities for international travel for STEM apprentices? We can enlarge that to some of the other priority sectors where we know there are particular challenges.

The sector skills councils are working with the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) on the development of careers fact sheets to support the work of careers advisers across Northern Ireland. Careers fact sheets for each of the main sectors will be useful across a much wider audience, including schools and FE college careers advisers.

This week and next week, members of some of the sector skills councils and I will be speaking to groups of schools’ careers teachers specifically about STEM careers. We are trying to get the message across and get a bit of excitement and understanding about the importance of STEM subjects. Those are some of the things that we are doing in that area to help direct people in a proper way.

The apprenticeship programme is only one particular offer, and we want employers to have a menu of options available to upskill and reskill their staff. The apprenticeship programme, particularly with the introduction of adult apprenticeships in the past year or so, has been seen as an attractive route to start upskilling and reskilling people, but it is not the only way. There is quite a large programme, and the employee may need only a small intervention to upskill. Tory may talk more about that.

We recognise, of course, that the essential-skills component is important to an apprenticeship. However, it is hoped that a person doing an apprenticeship will also develop some other important employability skills — or soft skills — such as teamwork and communication. It should not be forgotten that the development of those skills is an important part of what we are trying to achieve.

The development of the new qualifications and credit framework (QCF) is a work in progress, but it will be vital for future flexibility and provide bite-sized chunks of learning. How that qualifications and credit framework will sit alongside, and within, an apprenticeship framework is still being developed. Ultimately, it is about having a much more flexible offer for employers and employees, one that is not seen as a pure apprenticeship but can be used as one of a series of strands to upskill or reskill a workforce.

I have zipped through that quite quickly and made a number of general points. I invite Tory Kerley to pick up on some of those points and make specific comments from her point of view.

Ms Tory Kerley (Alliance of Sector Skills Councils):

Good morning everyone, and thank you for having us back. I also want to thank you on behalf of our employer group. Those employers asked us to do that, because they have been delighted that the needs and views of the sector were reflected in the recent changes. I am very appreciative that much of that was a result of our visit to the Committee, and the employers are delighted that their views were taken into account. That is the whole point of sector skills councils, so we are glad that the process is operating in that way.

As some of you may recall, our sector’s particular bugbears were the lack of all-age and part-time apprenticeships and the fact that Training for Success and apprenticeships were locked together in an ungainly mass. All of that is beginning to be dealt with, and the result of the availability of all-age apprenticeships can be seen in recruitment numbers. We now have almost twice as many retail apprenticeships as we would have had if the old system had remained in place. We are really delighted with the resounding success that it has been to date, so many thanks for taking account of our evidence in your deliberations.

Although we are delighted with those positive moves, other issues that we brought to the table when we were last here remain and must be given due consideration. I am speaking on behalf of our sector, but many of the essential-skills issues are clearly cross-sectoral. The way in which essential skills is tagged onto apprenticeships here is still seen by most of our sector’s employers as a barrier to uptake, because it puts candidates off doing an apprenticeship. Either only people who do not need the qualification are doing it — which is similar to only healthy people being taken to hospital — or the people who most need the qualification are being put off upskilling in that manner.

We still find that there is a lack of sectoral contextualisation in delivery. For example, a retail student is being taught alongside a plumber and someone from construction. That situation is due to economics — it is not cost-effective to do otherwise — so we need to be a bit smarter on that front. Economics means that many private providers cannot afford to employ someone of sufficient skill to deliver the essential skills. Much of the training is, therefore, subcontracted to colleges that have the expertise.

That is fine, but it can be very difficult for people in rural areas to access support from a college. Indeed, the Henderson Group, which has Spar convenience stores dotted throughout Northern Ireland, raised that point at a recent meeting. It said that employees in rural areas are being turned off and cannot be expected to drive long distances for a couple of hours every week over a protracted period of time in order to get an essential skills qualification. Many of the Henderson Group’s target group have families and other commitments. Its big plea is that — whatever interventions are made — training needs to be contextualised and as close to the store as possible, if not in store.

There is also the dreaded 40-hour rule, under which someone must do a minimum of 40 hours’ training in two — soon to be three — essential skills areas, irrespective of the distance that that person has to travel. Someone could be one millimetre away from achieving an essential skills qualification — in fact, he or she could simply need to get certified — and yet that person would still have to do the same amount of work as someone who really has those needs. That must be made more flexible to respond to the needs of the learner and not to what is referred to as the “robustness” of the academic qualification. Clearly, everybody has a different distance to travel. We would like that issue to be looked at. Most of my colleagues in other sector skills councils feel the same way — this is not simply a retail issue. However, the situation with regard to rural learners is a particularly strong issue for our sector.

Another part of the challenges that we face with the system is the one-size-fits-all means of contracting for apprenticeships. Our sector goes from, literally, the largest employer in the country, Tesco — representatives from the company spoke to the Committee the last time — to one-man bands, such as very small employers and micro-businesses.

Clearly, a micro-business will need an awful lot more support in development training and learning than Tesco. I use Tesco as an example, but, clearly, companies that have more than 400 employees, including Harry Corry and Menarys, employ extremely skilled trainers who are head and shoulders above most of the training providers themselves as regards the quality of their experience and sectoral knowledge. Those employers would like more flexibility, so that they can provide much more of the delivery themselves, rather than having other training providers offer what they see as less than good interventions. I do not mean that as a criticism of training providers per se; it is simply a matter of fact that employers’ training providers have that experience.

We had a very fruitful meeting on 12 February 2009 in the training programmes branch at DEL with some of the large employers, including the Henderson Group — which I mentioned already — Sainsbury’s, Asda and Tesco. The branch said that it will look at flexibility of provision for all sectors and at the contracting arrangements. We do not want to undermine what is available for the small and medium-sized enterprise market, because it needs the support of full training provision. However, if the larger employers have people with the right qualifications to deliver training, they are clearly equipped to do so. We cannot have just anybody dishing out apprenticeships, but if large retailers have suitably qualified people they should be allowed to use them, and the system should reflect that flexibility of provision.

I would be doing a disservice to Ronnie Moore of Energy & Utility Skills, who could not be here today, if I did not get his message across that he would like to see more upfront funding for apprenticeships, which is not so much of an issue in our sector. He feels that, without that upfront funding, employers and providers face a big struggle. I have done my duty by him and mentioned that point to you.

Laurence mentioned a new form of upskilling that the Department is considering. I think that its working title is “the skills solution”, which some members may be aware of. It would, by and large, offer funding for upskilling interventions at level 2 and level 3, but it would not in fact be the full apprenticeship framework. Therefore, if people do not need the whole remit of an apprenticeship, but just need to upskill, say, in our sector in the area of visual merchandising, customer service or logistics, they can do a unit in their chosen area, for which funding will be available.

We would welcome that hugely. It would be such a breakthrough for upskilling in all sectors, but particularly in ours, because we hear the cries that training must be in-house and that it must be in small bite-sized chunks, so that that can be built up. We are delighted that that is being progressed. In fact, one of the employers in our sector, Austins of Derry, is actually involved in that trial and is very excited about it. I think that it starts next week. We will watch that with great interest. Our plea is that there will have to be a certain amount of brokerage with a small “b” — I am not talking about the English system here — as regards matching the employers, particularly the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with a correct solution.

We ask strongly that that brokerage be independent so that not everything is pushed necessarily to programmes that may not be relevant. DEL officials need to explain to employers what they can do and what the programmes are. Brokers, skills solution advisers or whatever one wants to call them must be independent, because there is a worry that too many people will offer employers this, that and the other. That needs to be looked at very carefully. That is all that I want to say at this stage.

Mr Downey:

Regarding pilot schemes, we are concluding some discussions with the Department at the moment to conduct and to lead an essential-skills pilot scheme, not within the system of apprenticeships but separate from it. Part of that would be to look at the 40-hour rule, which is a recurring theme, to see what could be done to demonstrate that additional flexibility would still improve, or at least retain, the same outputs. We are hoping, over the course of the next nine months to one year, to conduct a pilot scheme, and I am happy to return to the Committee at some stage to give an update on that.

That concludes our formal input; I apologise if it was a little rushed.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much. You have provided help and information that will be useful to the Committee. It is also quite useful in inquiries such as this for the Committee to receive suggestions rather than criticism. You have brought some issues to the fore that the Committee will be looking at.

Tory, I appreciate your kind words to the Committee on behalf of your members.

Ms Kerley:

It was sincerely meant.

The Chairperson:

Every other day MLAs are getting criticised — it is not that often that someone speaks highly of them. On behalf of the Committee, we appreciate that.

Mr Newton:

I thank Laurence and Tory for coming here today. With regard to the presentations that have taken place, I know that the members of the Committee have been impressed by the way in which sectors of the industry and individual employers deal with apprenticeship training. In the submission that you have provided, under the heading “Future developments on ApprenticeshipsNI Programme”, you say that the provision is “patchy”. You use the phrase:

“a more structured approach to recruitment”.

You also say that there are:

“still too many Apprenticeships being recruited by ‘cold calling’ employers and offering ‘free training’”.

Will you expand on that, and will you also tell me what you think about the principle of centres of excellence in relation to apprenticeship training? I understand that a member of staff went to London to look at a fashion college there. Speaking for myself, I was impressed by what I read about the approach that is used there. I suppose that that could be regarded as a centre of excellence in the field of fashion. Will you expand on your thinking about centres of excellence as the vehicle for apprenticeship training?

Ms Kerley:

I will happily respond to that, because quite a few of those comments came from me. With regard to cold-calling and people being approached, there are still instances where employers tell me that providers have been offering them free training. When one digs underneath that, what they are actually offering is to support the employer with the apprenticeship programme. That undermines the quality of the programme. For a start, we would never want people to be talking about free training; it has to be training to a certain value. The public sector provides training to the value of however many thousand pounds, if people choose to enrol on the programme. Offering free training completely undermines the status of apprenticeships.

Apart from anything else, it would suggest that there are some providers who are offering that training for economic reasons of their own, rather than the upskilling of our economy as a whole, which is what we all want to see happening. That is the criticism, and there is evidence of employers saying that they are bothered by that and it annoys them, although that evidence is mostly anecdotal; I have nothing on record. The employers generally say “No, thanks” and put the phone down. That is not good for anybody; neither for the providers or for the status of apprenticeships.

Regarding the question about centres of excellence, you referred to the visit to the Fashion Retail Academy. Skillsmart Retail has been involved in the development of that. Centres of excellence in retail in England have worked reasonably well in various regions, although not all regions have them. Those will, pretty much, all come under the flag of our national skills academy for retail. As Committee members know, that is an England-only intervention, and I provided the Committee with some information about it on my previous visit. We are keen to see something similar established here where we could have, as you said, collaborative area learning networks in given areas where the expertise is pooled. In those areas, for example, there will be one expert in areas such as delivering apprenticeships, delivering units on the new QCF among others. Those experts will then become the recognised providers in that area.

The difficulty of such a scheme in this country arises when an employer is dealing with all areas and wants to have one point of contact. In such circumstances, it can get a bit confusing. Therefore, we cannot have too many centres of excellence, because it would dilute the excellence and make things confusing. We need to get a balance between access for everybody, regardless of where they live and the type of employer that they have, and not overly confusing the marketplace. Currently, there are 26 contracting areas, which is an unbelievable amount for an area of this size. I can see how that could work for a small employer, but it certainly will not work for large employers who will then choose to dip out altogether.

Mr Newton:

Basically, you are interested in a centre of excellence that replicates what exists in other regions, and you think that that would be useful for apprenticeship training.

Ms Kerley:

Absolutely; and it does not necessarily require much investment, because centres of excellence already exist. It is about packaging, putting arms around what is available, encouraging what already exists and giving it a recognisable badge that people respond to.

Mr Newton:

That would address the complaints about patchy provision, cold-calling and free training.

Ms Kerley:

Absolutely; it would clarify the market, which is currently muddy in some places.

Mr Downey:

The Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies (SEMTA) is working on ideas to assist SMEs. It is looking at the feasibility of how it can support a more structured way by which groups of SMEs can recruit. SEMTA wants to help groups of SMEs to work together to recruit apprentices and do the difficult work that they might not be able to do alone because of a lack of expertise and resources. Apprentices could move around between companies, including the larger companies, for training and experience in order to get the breadth of experience that may not be possible in their own organisation.

SEMTA is checking the feasibility of whether a pilot in that area would prove an attractive way to encourage SMEs to get more involved with apprenticeships and also give them an apprentice who is developed in a much wider way than the very narrow SME interests. Therefore, there is some interesting stuff that we are working on. It is work in progress, and we are trying to test some of those concepts.

The Chairperson:

The good thing is that the Committee is approaching the issue with a blank sheet of paper, so we can look at all of the options.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter:

The paper provided has been very useful. Robin has asked my question, and you have answered it.

Mr Newton:

That is the benefit of going first.

Mr Downey:

We are psychic as well.

I want to re-emphasise that we are conducting a pilot on essential skills, which is consistently one of the big issues, so we hope that it will bear some fruit in the next nine months to a year.

The Chairperson:

Will you inform the Committee about the outcome of that pilot?

Mr Downey:

I am happy to come back to the Committee and tell you more about the outcome.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation and the papers that you have provided. We will see you again soon.

Mr Downey:

Thank you.

The Chairperson:

I welcome now Deirdre Stewart from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). It is important for the Committee to hear the employers’ point of view on the issues, so that it can take a holistic approach to the question of apprenticeships. Thank you very much for coming, Deirdre. The Committee will hear your presentation, and I will then open up the meeting for questions from members.

Ms Deirdre Stewart (Confederation of British Industry):

I do not want to say too much, because members have copies of the paper. I will reiterate the points that are in bold in the submission.

The Confederation of British Industry is very supportive of apprenticeships and welcomes the fact that the target of 10,000 apprenticeship places has been reached. The Department’s recognition of priority skills areas is also welcome.

I would like to underline the importance that the CBI places on careers guidance. I know that we are now in the strategy implementation phase, but the CBI is waiting to see what way that will work through. It has been a long time coming and is something that we have talked about for quite a few years.

The CBI feels that it is important to cut down on the red tape and bureaucracy associated with apprenticeships. I suspect that the Committee has already heard much of what I am saying, because I have a copy of the paper that was submitted by the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils. However, I assure members that there was no prior collaboration. I did not get that paper until yesterday, when I realised that it was saying the same thing as us. However, that is not really surprising, given that we are coming from the same place.

CBI members’ feedback indicates that in certain cases auditing involves a lot of bureaucracy, so any streamlining of that would be welcome. It also came through strongly that the sectors differ quite a lot, and it would be good to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach by trying, if possible, to tailor the system to the relevant sectors.

Other messages include the importance of front-loading funding — particularly because, in the first year, apprentices may not be that productive — and the need for better advertising of apprenticeships.

A lot of other points are interconnected. There is work to be done to avoid apprenticeships being regarded as a second-best career option. It came through strongly in certain sectors that apprenticeships are seen as being for people who are not academic enough to enter third-level education or to go to university.

That is an issue that the CBI has been hearing about for several years. I recall that in areas such as engineering — even when there were fewer skills shortage in our labour market — we constantly heard that a technician-level apprenticeship was needed. That all withered on the vine. Young people, who might previously have done BTECs or whatever, are going to university, to which they are not that suited, so employers lose out.

The message is that we must not sacrifice quality for quantity. It is great to have those 10,000 places, but standards and skills must be kept up. The CBI does not want apprenticeships to be seen as a safety net for those not in education, employment or training (NEETs).

The CBI has done quite a bit of work in GB on this, and we are keen to work in with that, provided that it is good for Northern Ireland and is not done in a slavish way. What emerged in my research for today’s Committee meeting was that there seems to be quite a funding difference between the regions. It may be better to move towards a more standardised approach, with the proviso that we do not impose a one-size-fits-all system for the sake of it.

I picked up that there seems to be an issue around the essential skills and the 40 hours that must be undertaken by apprentices. That seems to be a turn-off for people, because it involves mainly mature people and, for them, it is like going back to school. That seems to be quite a rigid departmental requirement, and maybe that could be addressed some way. I heard about that, particularly from the motor industry.

The other thing to come through was whether we could extend, or get the idea of apprenticeships, into areas such as professional services, where that has not happened. Not everyone needs a degree, and that backs up the point that I made about the technician-type level, where there is a gap. An emphasis has been placed on third-level education, and we have already achieved 50% for university places. The CBI has always said that further education and higher education is great, but we must look at the subjects that people are doing, without going off down that road. There are big issues around engineering, and so forth, and that reflects through into the apprenticeship side.

I do not want to say too much more. That is a brief encapsulation of what the paper contains. I am happy to take any questions — if I can answer them.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much for that and for your paper. You have highlighted similar issues to those raised earlier by Mr Downey and Ms Kerley. As I said earlier, the Committee has a blank sheet, and it can come up with anything and make any recommendations. It is useful that the Committee is not looking at a one-size-fits-all approach; it is getting a view from everyone right across the board. It is also keen to talk to people who are involved in apprenticeships.

If there is a similar theme in the issues coming through, have any of them been brought to the Minister’s or the Department’s attention, and, if so, do you know what the response was?

Ms Stewart:

I put my hand up and say probably not. They probably have been in the past, as part of our input to the skills strategy. However, that would have been at a fairly high level. I have had to have a steep learning curve over the past few weeks since I knew that I was coming before the Committee, as it is an area that I was not particularly close to. To be honest, it is not an area that we had heard much about, although, perhaps now with the change in the labour market, we might start to hear more about it. We had not heard a lot about it from our members; it was not something that was coming up the agenda, which is, sometimes, a good thing, as it means that everything is working well.

On the other hand, it might not necessarily be a good thing. It might be because companies are not involved in apprenticeships, or they feel that it is not a system that can be improved — although I would not like to think that. I was talking to a building company yesterday, knowing that I was coming here today, and I made the point that, in that company’s area of work, which is quite diverse — it has a house-building side, but it is mainly civil engineering — it had not gone down the apprenticeship route. I suspect that that is part of the reason why we have not heard a lot about it. Many of our members would not be in areas where they would have a lot of apprentices.

The Chairperson:

I am conscious of the time. Some members want to leave to go to the rally in Belfast.

Mr Newton:

I want to pick up on the point about the construction industry. Does the CBI not cover, or include membership from, the construction industry?

Ms Stewart:

It does, of course. The Construction Employers Federation (CEF) is a member of the CBI. The CBI has a category of membership for trade associations. I have been speaking to the Construction Employers Federation recently on this subject, and I understand that it is working with the Department, but it has been quite a protracted process. Therefore, I do not want to go down that route.

I should have said before I started that I know that the Committee is hearing from a lot of sectoral people who are more than able to put forward their own sectoral arguments, which is one reason why I kept the paper at a fairly high level, and also to put in some feedback. Probably most of the major construction companies are among our membership. However, again, I suspect that they are probably talking to organisations such as the Construction Employers Federation and the Construction Industry Training Board about those issues, rather than talking to us.

Mr Newton:

You mentioned apprenticeships in the professional field. I have not heard that idea being mentioned before.

Ms Stewart:

The idea came from one of our IT members. It may have been an off-the-cuff remark, but it was quite interesting, because the company could see the value of such an apprenticeship in relation to the kind of people that it uses. However, IT varies so much. I better be careful, because this is being recorded, but companies such as Gem, for example, are seen as being in a quite different area of work from some of the more technical companies.

IT is an area where a one-size-fits-all programme would not work, so it might be very difficult to try to work it through. Nevertheless, it might be an interesting idea to explore, but I suspect that it will be a difficult one. I simply thought that it was an interesting point, because it was not something that occurred to me, but it might be worth some investigation. However, I suspect that, technically, it might be quite difficult.

Even in the motor industry, apprentices are given generic training, because further education colleges do not have up-to-date kit. Dealers or garages have to use their premises for training purposes, to enable apprentices to use the most up-to-date machinery, because things have moved on so much. Therefore, there is an issue around that. I thought that it was an interesting point, but it may not be possible.

Mr Newton:

Will you follow that up?

Ms Stewart:

I will follow it up and come back to you. I will go back and find out if the person who made the suggestion has had any more thoughts on the matter.

Mr Butler:

Thank you for your presentation. The submission from the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils mentioned STEM subjects, and often this is about the number of people who are taking up those subjects.

Ms Stewart:

We have talked about that issue, but more in terms of degrees. However, it also spills over into this issue, because I know that universities have been very concerned, particularly about the fall-off in some of the engineering disciplines over the past two or three years. The issue always comes up after the A-level results come out, and it is quite relevant. The CBI always comments on that nationally, but there has not been such a big fall-off in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, we still do subjects such as additional maths, for example, which seem to have fallen off elsewhere. We also have the double science awards.

However, without becoming complacent, having looked at the issue in the wider field and not just in relation to apprenticeships, I think that the feedback that we got was that we are storing up trouble for ourselves. The figures for the subjects taken are holding up OK, and I have a copy of the statistics from the Department of Education. However, in the medium term, that is, in four to five years’ time, teachers of those subjects will retire, and we will have a problem getting replacements for them. There are issues around that, but I do not want to go off too much on that. I did not pick up particularly on that point, but I read about the issue in the submission from the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils, and we concur with those points.

The Chairperson:

Deirdre, on behalf of the Committee, thank you for your paper and for your presentation. Robin mentioned that he would like you to come back on one issue.

Ms Stewart:

I will come back on that issue through the Committee office.

The Chairperson:

Once again, on behalf of the Committee, thank you very much.