From education to employment

Too Few Entry Level Apprenticeships: 16-18 Year Olds Are Losing Out

Kathleen Henehan, Research and Policy Analyst, the Resolution Foundation

Fewer Level 3 and Level 2 #Apprenticeship Starts

A well-known fact in the apprenticeship world is that the number of people starting an apprenticeship fell sharply after Spring 2017 with the introduction of the apprenticeship levy and related reforms.

Overall, the number of starts in 2018/19 was 23 per cent lower than the number starting an apprenticeship in 2015/16 (the last full year before the reforms came into place).

At first glance, it looks as if the starkest changes occurred among older, rather than younger, ‘would be’ apprentices: between 2015/16 and 2018/19 the number of 25+ apprentices starting a Level 2 programme fell by about 58 per cent while the number starting a higher-education (Level 4+) programme grew by 158 per cent.

In other words, opportunities for older apprentices on lower-level programmes fell off just as opportunities for older apprentices on higher-level programmes shot up.

16-18 Year Olds Losing Out

Yet, dig deeper into the figures and you’ll find that while opportunities for older apprentices moved in different directions, 16-18 year-olds in search of an apprenticeship have lost out more broadly. The number of under 19s starting an apprenticeship has fallen by 25 per cent: from 131,000 in 2015/16 to just under 98,000 this past academic year.

Largest Falls in Apprenticeship Starts by 16-18 Year Olds at Level 2

And although the number of 16-18 year-old starts has fallen across Level 2 (GCSE-equivalent), Level 3 (A level-equivalent) and Level 4 (sub-degree higher education), the largest drop in numbers has occurred at Level 2. Overall, the number of 16-18 year-olds starting a Level 2 apprenticeship has eroded year-on-year: from 87,000 in 2015/16 to 79,000 in 2017/18 (the first full academic year following on from the levy and regulatory reforms) and even further, to 55,000, by the end of last year.

Similar Falls in Level 2 Apprenticeships at age 16, 17 and 18

Data limitations prevent us from knowing just how many starts were taken up by 16, 17 and 18 year-olds separately in the last academic year, though it looks like the fall has been greatest among 18 year-olds (a 34 per cent drop between 2015/16 and 2017/18) and smallest, although still substantial, among 16 year- olds (a 21 per cent reduction over the same period). The number of Level 2 starts across the three ages now appears relatively even.

Big Falls in Level 2 Apprenticeships for 16-18 Year olds in Key Sectors

Another key observation is the fall in Level 2 apprenticeship starts by 16-18 year olds. Between 2015/16 and 2018/19, Level 2 starts by 16-18 year-olds also fell across all major subject areas, with the largest shifts (in absolute numbers) occurring in business, administration and law (-11,500), retail (-6,200) and engineering (-6,500) apprenticeships.

Does the Fall in 16-18 Level 2 Apprenticeship Starts Really Matter?

But while the fall in numbers is indeed striking, the bigger question we need to be asking is whether these changes really matter for young people. On the surface, there looks to be some room for cynicism.

For instance, fewer than one-in- ten 16-18 year-olds have been enrolled on an apprenticeship over recent years – including before the levy came into being. Nearly one-third (32 per cent) of those 16-18 year-olds who were enrolled on a Level 2 apprenticeship during 2017/18 did not successfully complete their programme.

Moreover, in the past, fewer than one-in-four Level 2 apprentices (of all ages) that did complete their programme progressed onto the next level of study within a year.

To put it another way: only a small minority of young people take on an apprenticeship and the outcomes for those that do are often disappointing.

But let’s not focus only on the negative. At their best, apprenticeships can offer young people outside of the ‘A level to university at 18’ path a direct route to the skills required for good, rewarding career. Given the complexity of options that sit before students outside the university track, a direct route is something to be encouraged.

And these days, that transition from education to employment is, for some, increasingly fraught: even though employment is at a record high, recent Resolution Foundation research has shown that the proportion of 18-64 year-olds who have never held a job is, at 8.2 per cent, up 52 per cent since 1998 – a fact that cannot be explained simply by rising student numbers.

Apprenticeships can provide young people with the skills development and work experience needed to keep them engaged in the labour market.

Level 2 Apprenticeships for Young People support progression: So what should policymakers do?

1. Prioritise apprenticeships for young people

First, to state the obvious, they need to prioritise apprenticeships for young people.

There’s a number of ways they can achieve this:

  • By limiting the proportion of funds that levy-paying employers can spend on older apprentices
  • Adding incentives to hire younger apprentices
  • Directly funding 16-18 year-old apprentice training through the public purse – as they do other types of 16-18 education.

And yet, they won’t want to encourage young people into poor quality programmes with little training and little chance of progression.

2. Ensure quality off-the job training

Second, policy makers need to ensure that apprenticeships feature proper off-the job training, which also means that they need clear mechanisms for checking this happens.

3. Improve apprenticeship outcomes

And last but certainly not least, apprenticeship outcomes should be improved more generally. 

Policymakers should ensure that the apprenticeship system allows young people a route to progress upwards in, rather than a one-off training course.

Kathleen Henehan, Research and Policy Analyst, the Resolution Foundation


No 16-18 Year Old Left Behind

The Spring Budget in March and Spending Review in the summer will be pivotal moments to see if the government will prioritise funding for the education and training of 16-18 year olds compared to other phases of the English system.

These will be against a background of reported 5% cuts in departmental spending and the apprenticeship budget facing overspend. The recent falls in the number of 16-18 year olds starting apprenticeships will also cause concern of a rise in the young people not in education, employment or training (NEET).

In this #No1618LeftBehind mini-series, leading authorities from across the education sector offer policies and measures to help the new Government level-up education and training opportunities for all 16-18 year olds in England: No 16-18 Year Old Left Behind – wherever they live.

 The authors are:


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