From education to employment

New think tank report finds over 100,000 apprentices dropping out each year

person sat behind pile of books

Exactly ten years after the publication of a major government review into the quality of apprenticeships in England, a new report from the education think tank EDSK finds that many apprentices are receiving such a poor experience that they are dropping out of their training programmes in huge numbers. The report calls on the government to take direct action against those employers and training providers who are letting down their apprentices.

The report finds that tens of thousands of apprentices are not receiving their minimum entitlements to training during their programme. All apprentices must get one-day-a-week ‘off the job’ away from their normal work duties so that they can receive vital teaching and training, yet more than half of apprentices get less than the minimum one-day-a-week and 30 per cent receive no training from their provider throughout the entire working week. One in five apprentices are not even told by their employer or training provider that this minimum entitlement exists. These problems are made worse by the fact that apprentices are never given a curriculum or syllabus before they start their training that sets out what they will learn – something that would never be tolerated for A-level and university applicants.

Remarkably, the government allows training providers to count any time that apprentices spend watching online lectures and doing their homework and written assignments as ‘training’. As a result, apprentices can go weeks, sometimes months, without receiving any training from a mentor or industry expert. Training providers can still claim the maximum government funding available for each apprenticeship even if they offer no face-to-face teaching at all. The lack of genuine training has become so prevalent that one in ten apprentices are not aware that they are on an apprenticeship.

The report also finds that some employers continue to treat apprentices as workers rather than learners and see training their apprentices as a ‘burden’, with one in five apprentices receiving no ‘on the job’ training from their employer. Despite apprenticeships being aimed at skilled jobs requiring substantial training, the government has allowed employers to rebadge low-skill roles as ‘apprenticeships’. Consequently, some ‘apprentices’ end up doing basic tasks like heating precooked meals, greeting customers, doing housekeeping and answering telephone calls while getting paid as little as £4.81 an hour. Employers themselves admit that outside of the apprenticeship system many low-skill jobs – such as working in a supermarket, driving a delivery van and dog grooming – only require a few weeks of training.

Government figures show that almost half of apprentices (47 per cent) are now dropping out of their course, and a staggering 70 per cent of those who drop out report problems with the quality of their training – equivalent to 115,000 apprentices every year. The report concludes that a package of reforms is needed to improve the quality of apprenticeships and protect apprentices from poor practice, with the aim of delivering the “world class” system envisaged by the government’s review a decade ago.

To meet this goal, EDSK proposes the following changes:

  • To protect the apprenticeship brand, the Government should scrap any apprenticeship that does not offer a genuine training programme for a skilled job.
  • To ensure all employers provide a high-quality experience, they should be forced to publish a detailed ‘training curriculum’ that shows apprentices what they will learn. The curriculum will also describe the minimum 300 hours of ‘off the job’ training per year that training providers must deliver.
  • At least 200 hours of the required ‘off the job’ training must be delivered face-to-face, and activities like homework and writing assignments should no longer be classed as ‘training’.
  • The Government should introduce a new ‘National Apprenticeship Inspectorate’ to approve and inspect employers and training providers in order to protect the interests of apprentices.

Tom Richmond, director of EDSK and co-author of the report, said:

“While there are many excellent apprenticeships available in this country, our report shows that tens of thousands of apprentices are still being badly let down by some employers and training providers. That so many apprentices are not receiving any training at all, let alone high-quality training, highlights how serious and deep-rooted these problems have become. It would be a national scandal if A-level or university students were treated this badly, and there is no reason why we should tolerate this situation for apprentices.

“So long as the government is content for watching webinars and doing homework to be counted as ‘training’ then there is little hope of improving the experience for current and future apprentices. The only way to eradicate poor provision and substandard training within the apprenticeship system is for the Government to now set a much higher bar for what constitutes ‘quality’ as well as doing a better job of protecting apprentices from malpractice and exploitation.”

Sector Response

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:  

“Higher skills and education are the key to unlocking higher productivity and good quality jobs. 

“But this report by EDSK shows too many employers are exploiting workers under the guise of apprenticeships. There is so much gaming the system that the case for reforming the apprentice levy is clear – but we must not lose the ambition to create high quality apprenticeships as a route into employment for young people. 

“If ministers are serious about getting the economy moving and creating decent jobs for the future, they must invest properly in skills and training.” 

Nicki Hay, Director of Apprenticeship Strategy and Policy, at BPP  

“Apprenticeships are most successful when employers and training providers work together to design the programme upfront. Each programme has to be tailored and address both the needs of the apprentice and the employer, in order to reap the rewards of the Apprenticeship Levy. The benefits of off the job and on the job training, in tandem, cannot be understated, and if apprentices are allowed to take an active role in a business from the outset, the impact on the business in tangible.  

“With businesses facing such challenges in recruitment, there is no room for poor delivery in the sector, and there are a variety of measures in place to identify poor practice, to ensure organisations can effectively maximise their training budgets. 

“This recent report should not concern those training providers who are already delivering a great learner and employer experience. However, more should be done to understand the leaver data – the data is being presented as a negative, but this may not be the case. Some apprentices leave their apprenticeship early due to a promotion, where their new role is not related to an apprenticeship, some leave for better pay, or to pursue other learning options.  

“It’s also important to remember that apprenticeships are jobs – therefore apprentices will have faced the challenges presented by the cost of living crisis and the pandemic, which can have impacted their decision to move on. It’s unfair to compare apprentices to those in full time education where the impact will have been felt differently.  

“Ultimately the data and story concerning number of apprenticeship leavers should not necessarily be a negative one, as many reasons for apprentices leaving programmes relate to positive destinations and issues beyond a provider’s control.” 

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