The Christmas break is famously when many first year university students drop out of their courses – this month there will be plenty of young people in the UK reconsidering the future after deciding not to return to their programmes.

In 2018, drop-out rates among university students went up for the third year in a row, according to official statistics.

Figures recently released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), showed that 26,000 students in England who began the first year of their degree in 2015 did not finish the year.

But many people also drop out of apprenticeship programmes. Last year, the Skills Commission’s Spotlight On…Apprenticeships And Social Mobility reported: “More than 30% of people who start apprenticeships in Britain do not complete them, and numbers are worsening every year.”

This is arguably even more important than university drop-outs, as the loss is borne in part by the government (which pays for the apprenticeship training that’s gone to waste), as well the whole of the UK – we’re missing out on vital, specifically trained and skilled new members of the workforce. This, at a time when the UK is facing an expensive skills shortage and its economy looks even less secure in light of Brexit.

And of course, apprentices themselves are missing out, by not achieving tailor-made experience and qualifications for future jobs, debt free.

Why are apprentices dropping out?

Some of the key reasons reported for apprentices dropping out of provision before completion are:

  • Apprentices are not happy with the content of the programme or the quality of the teaching.
  • Circumstantial and personal reasons, including redundancy, change of employer, personal health, family related reasons, etc.
  • Not having enough time to complete the necessary study and/or their workload is too high.

Last year’s Spotlight On…Apprenticeships And Social Mobility detailed some fairly suprising economic factors too, especially for young people living at home with their families. “A financial strain is particularly felt by 16-19 year olds living at home,” the report says. “The decision to undertake an apprenticeship rather than remain in full time education results in a reduction in household benefits and eligibility for council tax for over 18s, compared with choosing to remain in full-time education.

“Though in principle, this will be replaced to some extent by the young person’s wage, evidence suggests that this rule creates household tension. This can lead to a young person dropping out or deciding not to do an apprenticeship. Homeless charity Centrepoint argues that young people in households facing the greatest financial hardship are ‘not able to make a genuine choice between earning and learning’ because of rules around benefits. Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s Care2Work project found that this is a particular problem for young people in or leaving care.”

What can we do about apprenticeship drop outs?

First of all, we can measure the success of apprenticeships better, by not just looking at the number of programmes that are begun. Last month, a Collab Group report recommended the government “reform the three million apprenticeships target to focus on outcomes rather than starts” and to “publish regular data on apprenticeship outcomes by provider, sector, occupation and region”.

There’s also the question of benefits and pay: last year Conservative MP Lucy Allan asked MPs on the committee about barriers to apprenticeships and raised the issue of children in care who lose their housing benefit if they became apprentices.

She described the situation as “outrageous” and “crazy”, imploring the committee consider the fact that we have a system that prejudices a particular group who are most in need. Lady Andrée Deane-Barron, group education and skills director at the YMCA raised concerns about this too, reporting that many families decide their young person can not take up apprenticeships or traineeships because it will mean losing some of their benefits.

Tweaks to the benefits system, higher pay in general, and even support with travel expenses could make a big difference to the experience of many apprentices – and to their decisions to stay on their programmes or not.

Joe Crossley100x100Training provider CEO, Joe Crossley, of Qube Learning says more should be done to improve the programmes themselves, and issues of continuity during an apprentice’s training:

“There are mechanisms and processes that should be put in place to help reduce dropout rates of students across the sector,” 

“The first and most important thing for any training provider is to ensure the programmes are interesting, engaging and accessible. Once you have captured a student’s attention through a challenging, engaging program their desire to progress and achieve will ensure their personal goal stays at the forefront. After all every student starts a program with the aim of completing it.

“One of the great things about the Apprenticeship Levy is that it has given the employer more control over apprenticeship funding. Where this does present a challenge, however, is the loss of ability for training providers to follow students who change employer midway through their programme.  It is becoming more difficult to continue delivery in these instances, as the changes to funding do not make it easy for employers to re-invest in these circumstances.  We are quickly seeing changes in employer as the most common reason for exiting our students.”

So, more attention should be given to the experience of the whole programme, if we want to improve apprenticeship completion rates. At this time of year, when plenty of people are concerned with university students decided whether to continue on their courses or not, we would do well to consider apprenticeship drop outs too.

Emma Finamore, Editor, AllAboutSchoolLeavers.co.uk

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