From education to employment

Level 2 apprenticeships must be made more attractive to both learners and employers

Suzanne Slater, Director of Operations for Apprenticeships at NCFE

A move towards higher level apprenticeships has reduced opportunities for disadvantaged young people, explains Suzanne Slater, Director of Operations for Apprenticeships at educational charity and leader in vocational and technical learning NCFE.

The recent call by the Tony Blair Institute proposing that 70% of all young people go into Higher Education undoubtedly overlooks the needs of some of the most disadvantaged groups in our society, as well as devaluing high quality alternative routes into a career.

Whilst we know that HE plays a hugely important role in our education eco-system and is absolutely the right route for many young people, it isn’t the right decision for everyone, and it certainly isn’t without its limitations. For example, the UK already has one of the highest proportion of graduates working in non-graduate roles.

FE and HE is not a binary issue

We need to stop thinking of FE and HE as a binary issue, when they are both educational routes that should be valued equally for what they bring to the individuals, society, and the economy. It’s about providing learners with choice and equipping them with early careers information as well as the opportunities to carve their own path.

This is where apprenticeships should come in as a valid option for young people who prefer to learn in a more practical way. In fact, with a cost-of-living crisis at play, there has surely never been a better time for people to earn while they learn.  So why have we seen such a decrease in entry level apprenticeship starts for 16–18-year-olds?

Compared to its peak of popularity in 2011, there were 200,000 fewer apprenticeship starts in 2019. From those that remained, entry-level or Level 2 numbers have fallen by more than half (56%).

Course Correction: Why apprenticeship reform is needed to level up opportunity

The data to emerge from the economic think-tank Onward in their latest report – Course Correction: Why apprenticeship reform is needed to level up opportunity – backs up what many in the sector, including myself, have been saying for a while.

A shift in focus towards higher apprenticeships has negatively impacted disadvantaged young people by reducing opportunities for social mobility. Indeed, Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee, has said his two favourite words in the English language are “degree apprenticeships”. While I don’t dispute their role (indeed I believe there should be space in the apprenticeship system for learners at all ages and stages) we need to redress the balance.

No learner should be left behind

At NCFE, our belief of learning as the great leveller is what drives our core purpose. With a commitment towards creating a fairer society, we believe that no learner should be left behind, but this is exactly what happens when the focus increasingly falls on this higher end of educational pathways.

If we go back to the numbers, there are now nearly twice many over 25-year-olds doing apprenticeships as under 19-year-olds. A big part of this can be put down to fewer SMEs taking on apprentices and larger businesses using apprenticeships in a different way – namely the professional development of existing staff.

In London, for example, apprentice starts rose by almost 75% between 2016 and 2018 – going from 22,000 to 38,000 (by far the most in England) – but less than 17% of these were by 16–18-year-olds.

So, we know that reform to some extent is needed, but what does that mean in a practical sense? I believe it comes down to making Level 2 apprenticeships more attractive to both learners and employers

Level 2 Business Administration

One key change would be to bring back the previously popular Level 2 Business Administration standard which, despite numerous attempts by different trailblazer groups, there is still a resistance towards – even though it proved highly successful for young people and was well-liked by employers.

The apprenticeship offered a fantastic entry level qualification that gave learners the chance to experience a breadth of opportunities across lots of different areas within an organisation, before they may choose to specialise later in their careers. This was particularly attractive to SMEs that rely on their employees to have cross-functional experience and can’t afford to hire a specialist in one area.

For the learner, it presented a highly useful stepping stone for progressing onto higher levels or into specific career roles. Although there is currently a Level 3 Business Administration apprenticeship, we’ve found that, for 16-year-old school leavers who may not have their GCSEs, this isn’t an accessible option.

This isn’t good for the learner, the employer, or the reputation of entry level apprenticeships.

Level 2 in the NHS

Someone who is passionate about revising the current Level 2 standard is Lucy Hunte, National Programme Manager for Apprenticeships at Health Education England. I asked her about the importance of Level 2 apprenticeships, particularly for the NHS.

“The Level 2 BA was a vital entry level route into the NHS and the first rung on the career ladder. Now that rung has been removed and many young people cannot access the Level 3 due to the Maths and English requirements, and the fact that the Level 3 standard is not suitable for many of the junior roles in administration.

“The Level 2 was also used to support in work progression for existing staff and we had many examples of domestic or clinical staff using the framework to move into administration roles. If apprenticeships are really employer-led, then why do the powers that be not listen to the largest employer in England and allow this much needed standard to be developed?”

While change to the apprenticeship system is clearly needed, I don’t think it’s a case of scrapping everything and starting again. Bold claims by former Prime Ministers make the headlines, but often it’s the smaller changes that make the biggest difference.

If the Government is committed to reducing regional inequalities, supporting entry level apprenticeship uptake would be a great place to start. Making sure these opportunities aren’t lost to higher apprenticeships would ensure that the most disadvantaged young people in the UK are at least being given the chance to ‘level up’.

By Suzanne Slater, Director of Operations for Apprenticeships at NCFE

Suzanne is the Director of Operations for Apprenticeships at the educational charity NCFE. Having formerly worked at the North East Chamber of Commerce, she moved into Further Education through roles at two colleges in the region before taking up her current position. Suzanne is passionate about the transformative impact apprenticeships can have on disengaged and disadvantaged young people.

To learn more about apprenticeships at NCFE visit

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  1. agree L2 engineering frameworks provided foundation skills , performing engineering operations nvq , seems to be missing in the newer standards no offered by colleges , they seem to want o offer HE type standards , ie L6 Degree Electronics