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Study finds barriers to apprenticeship access for disadvantaged students

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Minimum English and maths entry requirements for the majority of intermediate and advanced apprenticeships are preventing many young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, from accessing apprenticeships.

This is revealed in new research by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), which calls on the Government to provide financial incentives for training providers and employers to encourage them to take on young people without grade 4 or above in GCSE English and maths (or the equivalent) and support them to achieve this level. The report says such incentives would reflect the higher costs and potential risks associated with taking on these apprentices.

Significant reforms have been introduced to the apprenticeship system over the last decade which have led to a substantial decline in the number of intermediate and advanced apprenticeships started, as highlighted by previous NFER research. The impact of this decline has been felt unevenly, with young people and those from disadvantaged communities of all ages particularly affected.

The report highlights how low wages are a barrier to the recruitment and retention of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds on apprenticeships, and that high travel costs may discourage many from applying for more specialised opportunities not available in their local area. These barriers, the report says, will likely worsen under the current cost of living crisis.

NFER is calling on the Government to consider extending the 16-19 bursary fund to apprentices. This could be used to subsidise travel costs for apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds and help mitigate the current inequalities in apprenticeship access. The Government should also review the current minimum apprenticeship wage.

Report co-author and Research Director at the NFER, Suzanne Straw, said:

“Our research highlights that numerous barriers exist which deter many young people – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds – from starting apprenticeships. If the Government is serious about creating ‘opportunities to all’, it needs to focus on more effectively tackling these barriers.

“For apprenticeships to be an accessible route for young people, particularly those who are most disadvantaged, it is essential the Government provides the appropriate financial incentives to training providers, colleges and employers to take on more young people who have not already achieved a Level 2 in English and maths.”

Other key findings:

  • Traineeships, short training programmes which aim to support young people to progress onto an apprenticeship or employment, need an urgent review. While traineeships are intended to help young people tackle a range of barriers to accessing apprenticeships and develop the necessary skills and capabilities, they do not appear to be doing this successfully.
  • Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) find it difficult to recruit suitable young people to apprenticeship vacancies. This is partly because young people applying for intermediate and advanced apprenticeship opportunities often do not have the skills and experience which employers are looking for.
  • Work experience is considered important for apprenticeship applicants but it does not need to be sector specific.
  • Interviewed SMEs felt that young people often lack career direction and long-term commitment to a career and can be swayed by higher-paid opportunities which may not offer the same long-term progression and financial prospects as apprenticeships.

The research looks at the availability of intermediate (Level 2, equivalent to GCSEs) and advanced (Level 3, equivalent to A-levels) apprenticeship opportunities, and the barriers to young people accessing apprenticeships at these levels. It draws on statistics on the number of apprenticeships started by young people, 20 interviews with SMEs and the information from the Find an apprenticeship service – the Department for Education’s online apprenticeship vacancy search website.


Sector Response

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“NFER are right to call on the Government to provide financial incentives for training providers and employers to encourage them to take on young people without grade 4 or above in GCSE English and maths (or the equivalent) and support them to achieve this level.

“The NEU believes that financially incentivising training providers and employers would go a long way to helping young people into employment and training. At this time of spiralling cost of living, the low wages that are currently offered to young apprentices are simply not enough, and this needs to be addressed. In some cases, young apprentices can’t afford to travel to the workplace and subsist on the wages they are paid.

“The NFER are also right to highlight that the apprenticeship reforms over the last decade have led to a substantial decline in the number of intermediate and advanced apprenticeships started, and that the impact of this decline has particularly affected young people from disadvantaged communities. Steps need to be taken, as this report highlights, to encourage young people to take up apprenticeships, by looking to change both the entry requirements and the funding.”

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