From education to employment

Apprenticeships failing working class school leavers despite reforms, says Onward

Vocational courses increasingly used as top-up training by older workers in wealthy areas

  • Young people in the North suffer most, with new starts in the Red Wall falling by a third
  • Number of apprenticeship starts in SMEs has almost halved since 2015
  • Government urged to fund 16-18 apprenticeships in the same way it funds A levels
  • Report backed by the FSB, Robert Halfon MP, Tom Tugendhat MP and others

A shortage of apprenticeships for young people is hindering the levelling up agenda. This is according to new Onward research warning that access to vocational alternatives to university has plummeted since the Government reformed the system.

A sharp drop off in small firms offering apprenticeships and a shift away from entry-level to higher apprenticeships has meant fewer school leavers becoming apprentices, and more established professionals in big firms taking them to top-up their existing skills.This means as large businesses have increased the number of apprentices they are hiring, fewer and fewer of these are from deprived backgrounds.

The number of entry-level apprenticeships (Level 2) has fallen by more than half (56%) since 2011. This is double the overall fall in apprenticeships available (25%). And the result is clear: There are now nearly twice as many over-25 year olds doing apprenticeships than 19-year olds. In 2008 the opposite was true.

This alone is a political challenge for the Government, but it matters particularly because the Red Wall is worst affected. The number of people in the Red Wall starting apprenticeships has dropped by a third, and fallen in all but two Northern constituencies, since 2011. Meanwhile, some of the greatest increases in the number of people doing apprenticeships in wealthy parts of London such as Battersea, Wimbledon, Chelsea and Fulham. The decline in intermediate apprenticeships, alongside the rise in apprenticeships in large companies across richer areas, is behind this trend.

The increased difficulty that working class young people face in trying to access apprenticeships is in large part caused by the Government’s reforms over the last decade, including its flagship Apprenticeship Levy. Given the importance of good university alternatives to levelling up, it is vital that ministers fix the apprenticeships system.

Onward’s report, Course Correction, sets out four ways to do this:

  1. Fully fund apprenticeships for 16-18 year olds. Currently the Government funds A-levels but not entry-level apprenticeships. This needs to change.
  2. Give regional mayors more responsibility for brokering apprenticeships. Mayors have shown that they can successfully deliver apprenticeships and should get more powers in this area, particularly on working with local SMEs.
  3. Actively encourage big businesses to recruit more school leavers via apprenticeships and end the subsidy for big businesses that support apprenticeships beyond their apprenticeship levy fund
  4. Publish data on apprenticeship outcomes. Ministers should publish comparative data so that young people can see the value of an apprenticeship when they are considering their future.

Will Tanner, Director of Onward and former Deputy Head of Policy to Theresa May, said:

“Apprenticeships are not delivering and without far-reaching reform will work against ministers’ ambitions to level up the country. Working class school leavers in poorer places need a decent alternative to university, not a system that increasingly serves existing workers in big businesses based in cities.

“The reforms of the last decade have improved quality and increased funding but have meant apprenticeships are increasingly used to upskill existing workers – often graduates – while working class school leavers are left short-changed. Apprenticeships should be a vocational pathway into a prestigious career not a training top-up for mid-career professionals.”

Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee, said:

“For too long, the mantra has been “university, university, university” when it should be “skills, skills, skills”. The Government are making some important progress on this issue – the Skills Bill, Lifelong Learning Entitlement and additional £3 billion to support the sector are welcome initiatives. But more needs to be done to rocket boost this agenda – access to vocational and non-academic routes is essential to build the skills capital we need as a nation. We must say, ‘goodbye to Mr Chips and hello to James Dyson’.

“My two favourite words in the English language are “degree apprenticeships” which represent a key avenue for young people. They provide students with an opportunity to earn while they learn, receive on-the-job technical training, and students are guaranteed a well-paid, and good job on their graduation.

“I welcome this new report from Onward which makes some important recommendations to help improve the apprenticeship system. Extending these avenues to all learners will enable every young person to climb the educational ladder of opportunity.”

Martin McTague, National Chair of the Federation of Small Business, said:

“Apprenticeships are a great way to bring fresh perspectives into a business and upskill the next generation, so it’s been really disheartening to see such a drop off in starts, especially within young people, in recent years.

“This report marks an important intervention and contains a lot of ideas that should be given careful consideration. It is right to focus on how the system can help create new jobs for young people.

“We’re pleased to see our recommendation to extend the £3,000 incentive for taking on an apprentice included as part of this project.

“We’re also encouraging policymakers to look at how they can get more unspent levy funds into the small businesses that are keen to champion social mobility and can really make a difference in this space.”

Alun Francis OBE, Deputy Chair of the Social Mobility Commission and Principal and Chief Executive of Oldham College, said:

“This report is an important contribution to the debate on how to make apprenticeships work better for employers and learners. Its insights provide food for thought on the unforeseen consequences of the apprenticeship levy on social mobility – particularly the reduced uptake of apprenticeships by SMEs and a focus on training existing employees rather than broadening the range of pathways into work for new entrants to the labour market. The report’s recommendations will be of interest to policymakers, government and industry as they consider how apprenticeships can support ‘levelling-up’.”

Miriam Cates MP, Chair of the 1922 Backbench Education Committee, said:

“The Government has made significant progress in raising the status and availability of vocational education, and this report is full of positive ways to build on recent reforms. These innovative ideas would not only make it more attractive for students to follow this path, but also make it easier for smaller businesses to offer apprenticeships and grow their workforce. There is a clear and pressing skills gap in the UK, so we need to go even further in making technical and vocational education a core part of our post-16 offer. That’s the best way to help young people level up their life chances.”

Constituencies where apprenticeships have increased the mostConstituencies where apprenticeships have decreased the most
RankConstituencyChange in share of apprenticeshipsRankConstituencyChange in share of apprenticeships
1North Wiltshire251.92%1Wokingham-71.96%
2Mid Bedfordshire45.71%2Harrogate and Knaresborough-70.27%
4Lichfield26.74%4Garston and Halewood-56.50%
5Gosport25.00%5Liverpool, Wavertree-54.76%
6Wimbledon19.23%6Liverpool, Walton-52.87%
7Rochester and Strood18.05%7Knowsley-52.58%
9Mole Valley16.67%9Bootle-48.88%
10Richmond Park14.81%10Darlington-48.82%
Table 1: Where have apprenticeship starts increased and decreased? (2011-18)

Figure 1: Apprenticeship starts in 2018/19 as a percentage of 2011/12 starts, deciles

Figure 2: Number of apprenticeship starts by employer size. The apprenticeship levy was introduced in 2017/8, when the number of apprenticeships in large companies overtook those in SMEs.

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