The government must take action now to stop the decline in apprenticeship starts for young people

By Dr Lisa Morrison Coulthard, NFER Research Director for Optimal Pathways Development

Tuesday 8 November 2022

This article was first published in Children & Young People Now on Tuesday 1 November 2022.

Significant reforms to the apprenticeship system in the last decade have contributed to a substantial decline in the number of intermediate and advanced apprenticeship starts in recent years, which were exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. While there has been some recovery during the latest academic year, it is not clear to what extent this recovery will be sustained.

Our recentĀ research builds upon the insights from our previous report in 2021 (regarding the disproportionate impact these reforms had on disadvantaged young people as well as Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), who play a crucial role in supporting young people to access apprenticeship opportunities). It outlines several barriers to attracting and retaining young people to intermediate and advanced apprenticeships.

We believe that the Government needs to take action now to tackle these barriers. However, rather than just a Government response being required, collective and co-ordinated action with employers and education training providers is needed to effectively boost the number of intermediate and advanced apprenticeship starts and prevent a further decline in numbers.

  • Equal access to apprenticeships needs to be enabled through financial incentives provided to training providers, colleges and employers to support young people to achieve their Level 2 in English and Maths during their apprenticeship. Some employers, colleges and training providers appear to be setting minimum GCSE English and maths requirements as part of their selection process, as it is costly to take on young people who have not achieved this level due to the additional support and training required. This demonstrates that apprenticeships will often not be an achievable route for lower attaining young people (currently 47 per cent of disadvantaged pupils in England fail to achieve grade 4 or above in both GCSE English and maths).
  • The minimum apprenticeship wage must be reviewed and the 16-19 bursary fund extended to cover travel costs for apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds. Our interviews with SMEs highlighted that the minimum apprenticeship wage may be insufficient for some young people to survive on. High travel costs can exacerbate the impact of this low wage, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and for those who may not have more specialised opportunities available locally. This barrier will only be intensified by the current cost of living crisis.
  • Timely and engaging information provision on intermediate and advanced apprenticeship opportunities to young people, parents, carers and teaching staff must be improved. Our interviews with SMEs highlighted that they are concerned that there is low awareness of apprenticeships among young people which may be a significant barrier to recruitment. Moreover, there are concerns that the longer-term financial and progression benefits of an initially lower-paid apprenticeship are not well understood by young people and so they may be more attracted to initially higher paid but low skilled jobs.
  • Access to and opportunities for work experience and greater employer engagement in schools is needed. The SMEs reported that young people applying for intermediate and advanced apprenticeship opportunities often do not have the skills (such as teamwork, good time keeping, flexibility, working accurately and being trustworthy) and work experience which they are looking for. This means that there is a need for employers to invest substantial resource in their development which can particularly impact on the day-to-day running of SMEs. More focus should be given to incentivising employers to offer work experience to young people to aid their transition into employment and ensure they are better able to meet employer requirements.
  • The traineeships offer, designed to support more young people to successfully progress to apprenticeships, must be urgently reviewed. Despite being introduced to support young people to prepare them to progress on to an intermediate apprenticeship, evidence suggests that, in many cases, this is not being achieved.

Without action to address these issues, there is a risk that the number of apprenticeship starts, especially for intermediate and advanced levels, will continue to struggle, to the detriment of those young people they were intended to support.