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The Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP says that vocational education is the key to social mobility

I grew up on Stapleton Road in Bristol, which a tabloid once dubbed “Britain’s most dangerous street” and “a moral cesspit”. Sure, it wasn’t exactly salubrious, but the people I knew around there weren’t bad, or lazy, or stupid. More often than not, they just lacked the opportunities that many take for granted.

And when my school careers advisor said I should set my sights no higher than an entry-level job at Radio Rentals, he wasn’t doing so because he thought I could learn a trade, get qualifications and work my way up the organisation. He was just telling me what kids from Stapleton Road were expected to do. We didn’t go to university, we simply left school at 16 and got ourselves a low-paid, low-skilled job.

In 2015, I’m not prepared to tolerate that attitude. Every young person has the potential to succeed, and, while I’m not in the business of mandating equal outcomes, I’m a fierce believer in giving equal opportunities. Everyone should have the opportunity to show what they can do, and we need to provide them with the education and training they need in order to fulfil their potential.

That training and education can come in many forms, but for too long a myopic focus on sending half of our young people to university has led to the alternatives being neglected and ignored.

Not anymore. This Government is giving vocational education the respect it deserves. We see apprenticeships for what they really are: not a second-best option, or a safety net for failures, but real jobs, paying a real wage and providing a real education; an excellent way for young people to gain the skills they need to compete and for employers to develop the leaders of tomorrow.

Our best vocational education is world-class, but for the past 20 years employer investment in training has  been in steady decline. This isn’t just bad news for the employees and companies, it’s bad news for the economy – a fifth of the difference between Britain’s productivity and that of the USA, France and Germany is down to a lack of comparative skills.

If we’re going to close that productivity gap and secure lasting economic growth and prosperity, we have to make the most of everyone’s talents – and a serious commitment to vocational education is one of the ways in which we’re achieving that. In the last Parliament we helped create well over two million apprenticeships. In this one, we’re going to create at least three million more, making apprenticeships an option that is open to every employer.

There are a number of ways in which we’re going to ensure we achieve this.

First, we’re legislating to put apprenticeships on the same level as degrees, and to give the term legal protection to ensure high standards. Apprentices deserve to know they’ll be getting top-quality training, not simply being used as a cheap way of filling vacancies. By guaranteeing high standards, we will make vocational education a more attractive option for young people and demonstrate the value of vocational education to employers.

Second, we’re abolishing employer national insurance contributions for apprentices under the age of 25, making it easier for employers to take one on.

Third, we’re introducing an apprenticeship levy for large employers, putting them in control by allowing them to fund the skills training their workforce needs.

And finally, we’re leading by example. All public sector bodies will be expected to employ apprentices, just as many Whitehall departments, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) included, already do.

Thirty years after I moved out,Stapleton Road is still not the nicest place in the world. But, like millions of other young people on similar streets across the country, the kids growing up there today are no longer treated like a problem to be tackled or a liability to be managed. They’re an incredible asset, filled with unlimited potential.

We owe it to them to unlock that potential and give them the opportunity to fulfil it, and our plans for vocational education represent a huge step towards making that happen – something that will benefit the economy, the country and, above all, young people themselves.

The Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP is the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills. He originally wrote this piece for the December edition of Bright Blue’s Centre Write magazine.