Urgent apprenticeship reform necessary to prevent disadvantaged young people suffering double Covid blow

Press Release

Wednesday 16 June 2021

The apprenticeship system in England requires urgent action to ensure disadvantaged young people interested in apprenticeships - and whose prospects have already been impacted by Covid - do not suffer a second educational blow, according to a new report.

The study, published today by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), examines the impact of recent reforms on apprenticeship starts, both before and during the pandemic. It highlights how apprenticeship opportunities for young people from deprived backgrounds have been disproportionately impacted by recent reforms to the apprenticeship system – even before the pandemic.

Covid-19 has only exacerbated existing trends, as apprenticeship starts among deprived and younger learners have continued to decline disproportionately - in line with young people more generally bearing the brunt of unemployment resulting from the pandemic.

In order to support the recovery of apprenticeship starts for young people, the report recommends that the funding system be re-designed to meet and protect the needs of SME employers, not only for the critical role that they play in our economic prosperity but also for supporting apprenticeships among young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.


Key data from the report shows: 

  • Apprenticeship starts across learners of all ages fell by a fifth between 2015/16 and 2018/19, and were driven by a rapid decline in intermediate and advanced apprenticeships offered by small and medium sized employers (SMEs).
  • The decline in apprenticeship starts between 2015/16 and 2018/19 among the most disadvantaged apprentices was 30 per cent, compared to three per cent among the least disadvantaged apprentices.
  • Apprenticeship reforms have also particularly impacted young learners. This is mainly because older apprentices are more likely to be doing higher level apprenticeships, which have substantially increased in numbers since the reforms.
  • Government reforms led to an increase in apprenticeship starts in London, while starts fell in all other regions of the country.
  • The pandemic had a substantial impact on apprenticeship starts, which declined by almost half (47 per cent) between March and July 2020 compared to the same period in the previous year.
  • Latest data suggests apprenticeship starts for young apprentices and intermediate level qualifications remain far below pre-pandemic levels. Apprenticeship starts for younger apprentices aged under 19 in August 2020 to January 2021 were a third lower than before the pandemic, and less than half the level of starts in 2015/16.


Jenna Julius, report author and Senior Economist at NFER, said:
“Apprenticeships have the potential to act as a vehicle for social mobility for young people, but our new report shows that over the last decade, those who are disadvantaged are increasingly being crowded out of the apprenticeship system.

“The pandemic has had a particularly significant impact on the lives of young people, and we have to ensure that they do not suffer a second educational blow. It is essential we re-consider elements of the design of the current apprenticeship system to ensure those hardest hit can access apprenticeship opportunities.”

The report makes a number of recommendations:  

The funding system needs to be re-designed to ensure that it supports the needs of SME employers.

  • Funding for training 16-18 year old apprentices should be separated and protected from the main apprenticeships budget.
  • Launch a nationwide campaign to raise the profile of traineeships.
  • Re-assess how minimum English and Maths requirements are incorporated into apprenticeships.
  • Require all employers to advertise apprenticeship vacancies on Find An Apprenticeship (FAA). To complement this, the government should provide targeted application support to young people applying to apprenticeships from disadvantaged areas.