Apprenticeships: the demise continues

The latest official figures on quarterly apprenticeship starts (August to October 2017) may be disappointing reading for government, in view of David Cameron’s 2016 General Election promise to create an additional three million by  2020, but as posts on this site have emphasized, apprenticeships have never benefited many young people, never provided an alternative pathway to university and haven’t really been wanted by the majority of employers – who  have continued to oppose a compulsory levy on larger companies.

But as the research Another great training robbery has argued, rather than just reflecting shortcomings in the way they have been designed or funded, the main drawbacks with apprenticeships are consequence of longer term structural and historical difficulties in the British economy and the political consensus that has supported it. Without understanding this,  it’s of limited value  comparing the failure of UK apprenticeships  with ‘successful’ German ones and it’s certainly not acceptable to blame schools and colleges for not promoting them properly.

The figures show a huge fall in the number of starts compared with the period last year (down to 114,000 from 156,000, August to October has always been the busiest period for starts) but this has been particularly significant for Intermediate apprenticeships (a 40% fall) a level only equivalent to GCSE and generally lasting only one year, without further employment guarantees. There’s also been a big decrease in the number of adults being enrolled on apprenticeships – in most cases, these have been existing employees, reclassified as apprentices so employers can qualify for funding.

The over-representation of  existing employees and the disproportionate number  of Intermediate apprenticeships  (enrollments  on Advanced level schemes show less of a decline, while there’s been a significant increase at Higher level – even if these types of apprenticeships still make up a very small proportion)  has  been regarded as  a serious weakness by almost all critics of apprenticeships and something governments have not been able to reverse.

The continued demise of apprenticeships  is likely to mean that policy makers will now focus on the new Tech-levels being unveiled from 2019 and designed to be delivered full-time in further education colleges. Yet there’s little to suggest that these will be any more successful in providing proper employment opportunities for those young people not wishing or not able to spend three years at university.



Apprenticeship troubles continue

It’s nine months since the introduction of an employer’s levy – designed to raise an additional £3 million for the apprenticeships programme and help government reach its total of 3 million more apprenticeship starts by 2020.

But the apprenticeship levy only applies to large employers with a wage bill of more than £3 million (approximately 2% of all employers) who are required to pay 0.5% of this. This money will be paid into an account and can only be spent on approved apprenticeship training – with the government adding 10%.

Research from the influential CIPD shows that while these employers are more likely to offer apprenticeships than their smaller counterparts, almost 1 in 4 still plan to ‘write off’ this expenditure as a tax. According to CIPD levy payers are also likely to spend some the funds the on ‘rebadging’ existing employees as apprentices – a major problem with the old system of apprenticeship finance.

The CIPD report also shows that rather than being required to spend funds on apprenticeships, many levy paying employers would rather pay a more general ‘training levy’ –  training levies exist in other European countries and still exist in some UK economic sectors like building and construction.

Non-levy paying employers must pay at least 10% of the cost of apprenticeships and organise their own training (though all employers receive extra funds for employing a 16-18-year-old) and it’s the lack of take up by smaller employers that may well mean the government’s 3 million target isn’t met. For this to happen, the number of starts will have to significantly increase – but figures for 2016/17 show a fall on previous years and worryingly the period May to June 2017 saw a 60% reduction (this period coincided with the introduction of the levy!)

Most apprenticeships, despite new standards designed to improve quality (20% of training must now be ‘off the job’) are also still more likely to be offered at Level 2 (GCSE) without clear routes of progression and there are very few at Higher Level. Just a quarter of all starts are by under 19-year olds.

Apprenticeship starts down

Official figures show a 2.7% decline in apprenticeship starts  for the period August 2015-2106 compared to the previous year. It’s the fall in participation rates for those under 19 (7%) that is most significant. The number of 19-24-year-old starts have also fallen, while the number of adult starts is narrowly up.

More specifically, the number of under 19-year olds starting Intermediate Level (GCSE equivalent) apprenticeships rather than continue with full-time school or college course is nearly 10% down, no doubt reflecting the low value of these schemes – many not leading to permanent employment or progression to Advanced level, but also the fact that most young people have already reached GCSE standard at school.

The number of Higher Level apprenticeship starts is up significantly – to over 36 000, but Higher Level starts still make up less than 8% of total apprenticeships and at a time when university is more popular than ever, only around 10 000 of those starting a Higher-Level apprenticeship are below 24.

This last year has seen the introduction of an employer levy and it’s too early to assess the success of this controversial scheme. But it’s possible that apprenticeships are now past their sell by date and the government is looking to new T-levels to mop up those young people not planning on, or not able to afford university?  Though the first T-levels (full-time college courses) are not planned to start until 2020.

New apprenticeship figures, but a similar story

 ‘Our goal is for young people to see apprenticeships as a high quality and prestigious path to successful careers’  

     Foreword to English Apprenticeships: Our 2020 Vision   HM Government Dec 2015 

 Latest statistics for apprenticeship starts continue to provide a rather different picture to that pained by government ministers. It’s true that there have been over 3 million starts since May 2010 and another 800 000  since 2015, but the majority of these have continued to be at Intermediate (GCSE) Level a standard most young people have already reached. Adult workers  (often existing staff being reclassified as apprentices to secure training funding)  have also benefited the most.

Figures for the period September to November 2016, show a similar story. There were 155,600 new starts, but of these 84,000 were Intermediate Level -and just 58,300 Apprentices were aged under 19.

Apprenticeships continue to be promoted as an alternative to higher education, but by way of comparison, 240 000 UK under 19 year olds accepted university places for September 2016, around one in three of the cohort. In contrast, just 1,700 18 year olds began Higher Level apprenticeships –considered to be equivalent to at least the first year of university study.

It’s noticeable that women  outnumber men (51.1% to 48.9%), this reflecting large numbers of starts in social care and low grade clerical work.

With apprenticeship applications continuing to outstrip vacancies, like other programs designed to accommodate ‘non-academic’ young people, apprenticeships have fallen far short.

Apprenticeships : many more applications than vacancies

Recent Department for Education statistics show that the number of apprenticeship applications far outstrip the number of apprenticeship vacancies.

For example, between Aug 2015/16 there were a total of 1,656,680 applications for 211,380 vacancies a ratio of about 8 to 1 – about half of these were from 17-18 year olds. Three quarters of vacancies were for Intermediate (GCSE level) positions. The figures do not allow us to calculate the number of young people wanting apprenticeships because they will include multi applications, but they do reflect a continued shortage of opportunities. The largest number of vacancies are in the Business, Administration and Law category – well over a third. In comparison, there were just over 8000 vacancies in Construction ( a sector considered to be suffering from skill shortages) and  30 000  in engineering and manufacturing, a 20% increase on the previous year.  

These totals are based on ‘on-line’ vacancies only and do not include the large number of (mainly low-level) apprenticeships created by regrading existing existing workers, allowing employers to qualify for funding

Full statistics:

Still a ‘Great Training Robbery’

front_page_001Updated and revised. This ‘final’ version covers developments since the 2015 General Election – like the employer levy, The Post-16 Plan, the Institute of Apprenticeships, the further development of the Trailblazers. 

Despite these  however, provisional figures for 2015/2016 continue show that apprenticeships continue to be mostly ‘low skilled and dead end’ and for most young people,  remain a ‘Great Training Robbery.’ 

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Welcome to the Institute of Apprenticeships and Technical Education!

Olympics - Previews - Day - 3 She might have ditched the Cameron government’s Acadamisation plans but Education Secretary Justine Greening is going ahead with its  Post-16 Skills Plan [i] – legalities were formalised in The Technical and Further Education Bill on Oct 27th.

The Plan commits itself to create 15 distinct ‘pathfinder’ routes into employment each with a single ‘college based’ Tech Level qualification and/or an apprenticeship -designed by employers’ representatives. The technical and apprenticeships routes, which will run alongside, but be equal in status to academic A-levels and will be the responsibility of a new Institute of Apprenticeships and Technical Education.  The new institute, which  currently exists as the Institute of Apprenticeships but, so far,   with only a shadow structure will:


  • Determine the occupations for apprenticeships and technical education qualifications

  • Approve ‘standards’ and ‘technical education qualifications’ and groups to develop them

  • Own the ‘standards’ from which qualifications development will be based

  • Hold copyright of approved technical education qualifications.

The first of the routes will come into being in September 2019 and will be two-year college based programmes suitable from the age of 16, as well as those 19+, with close alignment to – or maybe even interchangeable with – the new ‘Trailblazer’ apprenticeship standards. The report says all routes will be delivered for teaching by 2022.

It all sounds relatively unproblematic: Or does it?  There are some major issues.

The government, like most previous ones – in attempts to improve its standing, vocational education has been constantly reformed since the 1980s –considers the main problem is that there are too many different qualifications resulting in employers being confused and reluctant to get involved. But governments have tried to do this before. Remember New Labour’s disastrous and expensive Specialist Diplomas (!) These were supposed to replace all other vocational qualifications and were also linked to employer based sector skills councils.

It isn’t clear either, what will happen to the existing Tech Level qualifications, let alone those designated as Applied Level – but included in Post-16 performance tables and studied by around 100,000 students. The Tech Levels were also the result of Michael Gove’s own attempts to streamline vocation qualifications and to make them more rigorous.

The Plan excludes any indication of whether schools will be involved –concentrating entirely on colleges. With school funding largely based on the number of students, school are unlikely to want their ‘non-academic’ sixth formers to transfer to colleges and will look to create their own alternatives. Also, years of cuts have left colleges starved of funds.

Despite being linked together through the new Institute, the college based and apprenticeship routes remain very different. While full-time  vocational learning is mostly dependent on the levels of resources available, the government has failed to persuade employers ( an apprenticeship is a job paying a wage) to expand the number of Advanced and Higher Level apprenticeships – relying on the continued growth of Level 2 (GCSE equivalent) often amongst existing employees to meet its 3 million target.

The Skills Plan like previous vocational initiatives continues to talk about the need for more ‘technician level’ skills, but studies of the labour market increasingly suggest that ‘middle’ and ‘technician’ level jobs are continuing to disappear and where they do exist are increasingly being filled by university leavers unable to find ‘graduate jobs’ – the main reason why employers do not want to expand apprenticeships.

 It’s true that other European countries do have well established technical routes – and as a result  they have less people going to university – but for how much longer and to what effect remains to be seen.  Meanwhile  the new Institute will have a big job on it hands!