Are current English and maths requirements a barrier to young people entering apprenticeships?

By Henry Faulkner-Ellis, Economist at NFER

Monday 13 December 2021

Henry Faulkner-Eliis, NFER Economist

Imagine a school leaver has just completed their GCSEs and wants to get onto an apprenticeship scheme. They search through the vacancies online but find that almost every advert asks for qualifications they don’t have.

This is currently the case for a significant number of young people. To address this issue, the Government needs to re-assess how minimum English and Maths requirements are incorporated into apprenticeship training, and consider how they can better support employers in taking on apprentices who do not meet them.

Candidates not meeting Level 2 in English and Maths lose out

In 2014/15, the Government made it mandatory for all apprentices to continue studying towards a Level 2 qualification in English and Maths (e.g. achieving a minimum GCSE grade of 4), where an apprentice did not already meet this requirement. While this was intended to ensure apprenticeships were preparing individuals to succeed in the labour market, the extra requirements created disincentives for employers and providers to take on apprentices who did not already meet minimum requirements. For example, both providers and employers have reported filtering out candidates without minimum English and Maths requirements, as these candidates are seen to be less likely to pass the end point assessment at the end of the apprenticeship.

Only half of all young people from disadvantaged backgrounds (as measured by eligibility for free school meals) achieved a Grade 9-4 in English and Maths at KS4 in the last academic year. Because of  this low rate, the requirement to continue studying towards Level 2 qualifications in English and Maths may have contributed to the particular decline in apprenticeship starts among disadvantaged young people, as highlighted in our recent NFER research report. However, until now, it has not been possible to assess how widespread minimum English and Maths requirements are.

NFER analysis of DfE apprenticeship vacancy data

For the first time, the DfE recently published detailed vacancy information from its Find An Apprenticeship (FAA) service, where employers can advertise apprenticeship vacancies. While the platform only includes a sub-set of all apprenticeship opportunities, it still provides the most comprehensive picture yet of apprenticeship entry requirements.

Our analysis finds that almost 80 per cent of all apprenticeship vacancies advertised on the FAA website between August 2018 and October 2021 mention English or Maths as qualifications required to fill the vacancy[1]. While this percentage increases with the level associated with the apprenticeship, we still find that 71 per cent  of intermediate apprenticeships (Level 2) mention English or Maths in their qualification requirements. Considering only half of disadvantaged young people achieve these qualifications at KS4, these requirements are a significant obstacle to having more disadvantaged young people doing apprenticeships.

Percentage of apprenticeship vacancies that have an English or Maths requirement by apprenticeship level

While some apprenticeships require high-levels of English and Maths skills, there are apprenticeships where only some aspects of these skills might be required. For example, a social care apprentice is unlikely to require the same levels of numerical skills as an engineering apprentice. Despite this, we find that the majority of vacancies across all sectors mention English or Maths requirements – even in the sectors where an apprentice might not necessarily need to meet minimum requirements at the start of their apprenticeship. This suggests that employers are imposing minimum requirements because of how the system is designed, and not because they are a pre-requisite for the actual apprenticeship.

While there is no doubt that numeracy and literacy are important for young people to succeed in the labour market, it is clear that the current minimum requirements act as a barrier to young people accessing apprenticeships. This is particularly important as these young people will be even more restricted in their options if plans to de-fund some BTECs go ahead in 2024.  To ensure that all young people are able to access a suitable route at post-16, the Government needs to re-assess how English and Maths requirements are incorporated into apprenticeships. They should also consider how they can better support and incentivise employers to take on apprentices who do not meet minimum requirements before starting their apprenticeships.

[1] This includes a small number of vacancies mentioning either numeracy or literacy in their qualification requirements.