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Apprenticeships are failing working class school leavers

4 min read

A record number of 18-year-olds - almost four in 10 - accepted a place at university last year. Unfortunately, too many of them - around one in five - will graduate encumbered with a lot of debt but no greater chance of higher earnings for their troubles.

The government has rightly recognised this as a problem. In recent years, it has introduced several reforms to improve access to alternatives to university - both for young people and for their potential employers - and started to clamp down on low value degrees.

But as new Onward research - Course Correction - shows, take up of apprenticeships among young people has plummeted since the Government introduced these changes. The number of entry level apprenticeships has fallen by more than half over the last decade.

This shortage of apprenticeships is hitting red wall towns in the north and midlands hardest of all, with consequences for the government’s levelling up agenda. Indeed, the number of people starting apprenticeships has fallen in all but two northern constituencies over the past decade, while becoming increasingly popular in wealthy areas of London and the south east.

What should be a tool for social mobility is instead being used as a professional development tool for middle managers

We are now in a strange position where apprenticeship numbers are rising in Chelsea, Battersea and Wimbledon while falling in post-industrial towns where they have historically mattered most to local economies’ success. This was clearly not the intention when ministers set about reforming apprenticeships to boost quality and access six years ago.

But while not intentional, we should recognise it is an unintended consequence of ministers’ decisions. Five years ago, the government introduced their flagship Apprenticeship Levy - a charge on large businesses to incentivise them to invest in vocational training.

The lion’s share of this investment was intended for the recruitment and training of entry-level apprentices. But instead, too many big businesses have been spending it topping up the qualifications of their existing employees with additional training. So, what should be a tool for social mobility is instead being used as a professional development tool for middle managers.

The result of this is clear to see: there are now more than twice as many people aged over 25 doing an apprenticeship as people aged 18 or less. Back in 2008 the opposite was true.

Meanwhile, while big firms in wealthy parts of southern England are busy upskilling their existing staff, the number of small and medium sized businesses elsewhere offering apprenticeships has shrunk. As these kinds of firms have historically trained the bulk of young apprentices, this has been a huge blow for disadvantaged 16-year-olds.

Funding is a big part of the problem here. Currently, if a young person wants to do A-levels, these will be fully funded by the government. But if they want to do an apprenticeship then they must find a business willing to cover the costs, as well as the responsibility for training them. In a world where ministers talk about “parity” between technical and academic routes, this cannot be right.

Added to this are the economic pressures of the last few years. It has been an exceptionally difficult few years for businesses and so many have shied away from offering new apprenticeships. This is understandable, but it is not sustainable - especially after two decades of declining business investment in skills. We need - and should expect - businesses to spend more on human capital, especially in left behind places held back by low skills.

Ministers have talked a good game on apprenticeships for ten years. They now need to put their money where their mouth is. Before the next election, the government should commit to fully-funding apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds, just as they do for A-levels. 

A well-funded, well-understood apprenticeship system that gives young people across the country an alternative to university education should be one of the government’s main tools for levelling up. But it is at risk of becoming the preserve of the sharp-elbowed middle classes. Ministers must act now to stop this happening.


Will Tanner is the director of Onward and former deputy head of policy to Theresa May.

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