Apprenticeships are failing to reach disadvantaged youngsters, research finds

Tory apprenticeships are more elitist than degrees and are being snapped up by the middle classes, a new report claims.

A new study published by the social mobility charity the Sutton Trust has found that young people from low-income backgrounds are under-represented in higher and degree level apprenticeships.

The research shows that the proportion of degree apprentices from people from low-income families is lower than for undergraduates – 5 percent vs 6.7 percent, suggesting that apprenticeships are not a more accessible route to careers than going to university for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.  

The research was carried out by academics at the London School of Economics. It found that when the apprenticeship levy and other policy changes were introduced, including the move from Frameworks to Standards and new rules on the quality of training, the number of overall apprenticeship fell by almost a quarter from 2017 to 2018. This followed already declining numbers in apprenticeship take-ups from 2015 – 2020. According to figures by the Department of Education, there was another steep decline in overall starts during the pandemic. These numbers still have not recovered, with DfE data showing that starts for 2021/22 are still 11% lower than in 2018/19.

Apprenticeship up-takes were traditionally higher in the most deprived areas of the country. But as the research shows, this is no longer the case. The share of apprenticeships across all levels in the most deprived areas of the UK has fallen from 26 percent to 20 percent, compared to an increase in the most affluent areas from 14 percent to 18 percent.

“More prosperous areas have benefited disproportionately from the expansion of degree apprenticeships. Strikingly, higher and degree apprenticeships are not more common among disadvantaged individuals than a university degree. From this perspective, it is hard to see higher and degree apprenticeships as a route to widen opportunities for individuals from poorer backgrounds,” said the report.

In 2021, analysis by Labour claimed that apprenticeships had “declined by a third since 2015, with a particular drop among young learners.” Keir Starmer said young people and employers “have been let down by a decade of Conservative failure on skills and training.”

It seems disadvantaged young people are being disproportionately hit by declining apprenticeship numbers. In response to the recent study, Sir Peter Lampl, founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“Today’s research sharply highlights worrying issues around access to apprenticeships. It is deeply troubling to see this steep decline in numbers in recent years, and still more troubling to observe such inequalities in take-up.”

Lampl added that higher and degree apprenticeships offer young people a chance to earn while they learn, yet in too many cases apprenticeships are failing to reach the most disadvantaged youngsters – the exact group that would most benefit from them.

“Apprenticeships have an absolutely vital role to play in the government’s skills agenda, but for them to truly deliver, government and employers must work together to ensure they are truly accessible to all.”

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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