Five steps to halt the decline in young people’s access to apprenticeships

By Suzanne Straw and Dr Lisa Morrison Coulthard, NFER Research Directors

Friday 17 February 2023

This Op-ed was first published in FE Week on Wednesday 15 February 2023.

New Department for Education data on apprenticeship starts released on 26 January suggest level 2 and 3 apprenticeships continue to be a declining opportunity for 16- to 19-year-olds entering the labour market. This persistent trend is bad news for young people, but some key actions could tackle the obstacles that stand in their way.

A steady decline

As outlined recently in FE Week, despite a bounce back in apprenticeship starts post-pandemic last year, the latest figures show that the total starts in the first quarter of the 2022/23 academic year (August-October 2022) were down by 6.1 per cent compared to the same period in 2021/22.

Although this drop is reflected across all main age groups, since 2015/16 there has been a well-documented sharp decline in apprenticeship starts at intermediate and advanced levels for 16- to 19-year-olds. This is partly related to the disproportionate impact of the Covid pandemic and the apprenticeship reforms - especially the introduction of the apprenticeship levy – on small- and medium-sized enterprises, who play an important role in providing apprenticeship opportunities for young people. Moreover, the decrease is set against a continued growth in higher level apprenticeships (level 4 and above), which continue to flourish.  

This ongoing trend is troubling as NFER’s recent research shows that young people, particularly those who are already disadvantaged, face a multitude of barriers to accessing apprenticeships which are not being effectively tackled.

Complex challenges to access

NFER’s research found that young people considering intermediate and advanced apprenticeships often face barriers including English and maths requirements at GCSE grade 4+ (or equivalent), as well as a lack of life and work experience and of transferable skills.

Of particular significance, while 69 per cent of key stage 4 pupils achieved grade 4 or above in GCSE English and maths in 2021/22, less than half (48 per cent) of disadvantaged pupils achieved this level. Additionally, the low apprenticeship wage often means that young people are pushed towards low-skilled jobs that pay more rather than initially low-paid apprenticeships which offer better longer-term prospects.

Despite being set to increase to £5.28 in April 2023, the minimum hourly wage for apprentices is still low and likely to continue to be off-putting for many young people, particularly in the context of the cost-of-living crisis.

The recent announcement that the national traineeship programme will end in July this year (with provision being integrated into 14-19 study programmes) is also a negative move. Although traineeships did not grow as expected, the lack of a wage was a key barrier and an improved offer could have provided an opportunity to support more young people into apprenticeships.

Simple steps to success

We recommend five much-needed improvements to tackle the barriers that are keeping increasing numbers of under-19s from apprenticeships.

First, training providers, colleges and employers need additional financial incentives to support young people to achieve their GCSE grade 4+ or functional skills level 2 in English and maths during their apprenticeship, if they have not yet got them.  

Second, government must review the minimum apprenticeship wage and extend the 16-19 bursary fund to cover travel costs for apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Third, young people, parents, carers and teaching staff must receive more timely, engaging and accessible information on intermediate and advanced apprenticeship opportunities. The expansion of the Baker clause is a start, but improving understanding and awareness is necessary, ideally starting in primary schools.  

Fourth, schools must be incentivised to provide better access to and opportunities for work experience and improve employer engagement to support young people to gain a better understanding of and develop positive attitudes towards the world of work.

Finally, young people who are not ready to access apprenticeships should have access to local provision to support them to acquire relevant skills and experience. In developing this provision, offering young people a wage and/or support with transport costs will be an essential consideration.