Dr Fiona Aldridge, Director of Policy and Research, Learning and Work Institute

In the years prior to the pandemic, even as the overall number of apprenticeships starts were falling, we saw a steady increase in the number of employers offering apprenticeships at levels 4 and above; the introduction of the levy and the increasing availability of standards at higher levels was key to this growth. More young people and adults too recognised that higher level apprenticeships could help them develop the higher-level skills demanded by the labour market, support their career progression, and provide greater access to work-based training, while limiting its impact on their personal time and finances.

For government, their ambition to grow both the number and quality of apprenticeships was accompanied by a commitment to widening access and to ensuring that programmes at all levels could support social mobility for people from diverse backgrounds. Learning and Work Institute research published earlier this week, shows that while some progress has been made, there is still much more to be done if we are to address the under-representation of apprentices from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, apprentices with learning difficulties and disabilities (LDD) and apprentices living in disadvantaged areas of the country – enabling the programme to truly meet its potential to support social mobility.

Our analysis shows that while there was some variation by apprenticeship level and standard, in general in 2018/19:

  • Higher-level apprentices were generally older than their counterparts in higher education. 60% of higher-level apprentices were aged 25 and over, compared with just 22% of first year undergraduates and 52% of first year post-graduates were aged 25 or over.
  • The majority of higher-level apprentices were studying at a higher level than previously achieved. Just 17% of level 4/5 apprentices were already qualified to this level compared with 51% of level 2 apprentices and 27% of level 3 apprentices.
  • Just one in six higher-level apprentices were from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds (16%), a greater proportion than on lower-level apprenticeship programmes. However, this figure is much lower than the 30% of first year undergraduates and 27% of first year postgraduates from BAME backgrounds.
  • People with a declared learning difficulty or disability (LDD) also remain under-represented in apprenticeships. Eight percent of apprentices on higher level programmes declared an LDD, compared with 14% of first year undergraduates and 30% of the working age population.
  • Where you live matters. In the most affluent areas of the country, 30% of apprentices are on higher level programmes, compared with just 18 per cent in the most deprived areas.

Employers and apprentices suggested a range of measures that could better enable the apprenticeship programme to support social mobility, including:

  • Greater financial support for SMEs to overcome the barriers associated with offering higher-level apprenticeships.
  • Better promotion of higher-level apprenticeships, to highlight the financial and career-related benefits, and to tackle misconceptions about apprenticeships being only available at lower levels.
  • Encouragement and practical support for employers in diversifying the profile of their higher-level apprentices, and their workforce more generally.
  • Ensuring clear progression routes from lower-level apprenticeships are in place, with information and support to help apprentices from diverse backgrounds to progress.

Of course, since this research was undertaken, we have seen a significant fall in the number of apprenticeships – as a result of the pandemic – and we will need to look closely at what impact this has had on the profile of, and outcomes for, apprentices. Our analysis shows that supporting social mobility will require more than simply trying to get back to where we were. Instead, we will need a greater ambition and a more concerted effort by government, employers, and providers to engage and support under-represented groups in accessing apprenticeships.

Dr Fiona Aldridge, Director of Policy and Research, Learning and Work Institute

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