Apprenticeships: How to improve access to level 4

Barriers to higher-level apprenticeships for learners, training providers and employers must be removed, says research

Kate Parker

High-level apprenticeships: How to improve access

The progression routes for lower-level apprentices must be clear if the government wants to increase participation in apprenticeships at level 4 and above, the Learning and Work Institute has said.

In research published today, commissioned by the Department for Education, the institute says the barriers to higher-level apprenticeships for learners, training providers and employers must be removed. 

The demand for apprenticeships at level 4 and above is growing. The report highlights research which shows that apprenticeship starts at level 4 and above have increased from 4 per cent (19,771 starts) of all starts in 2014-15 to 19 per cent (75,058 starts) in 2018-19 . 

Research also shows that employers paying the apprenticeship levy were more likely than non-levy payers to take on apprentices at level 4 and above. In 2018-19, 25 per cent of apprenticeship starts with levy-paying employers were at level 4 or above, in comparison with just 11 per cent of apprenticeship starts with non-levy-paying organisations.


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In order to increase demand, the research says that the DfE and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education must offer clear information and guidance about the 20 per cent off-the-job training rule, after finding that the rule is a “source of contention” for higher-level apprentices with demanding and inflexible workloads and/or family responsibilities – and is also negativity perceived by employers fearing a reduction in productivity from senior staff.

It adds that there are financial barriers preventing small businesses from offering higher-level apprenticeships, as well as a general lack of awareness about higher-level apprenticeships. 

The research calls on schools and colleges to ensure that positive messages about higher-level apprenticeships, including the financial benefits, career progression and the gaining of vocational knowledge, are promoted alongside higher education and supported by high-quality careers information, advice and guidance. 

Employers also requested encouragement and support to increase the diversity of their higher-level apprentices, and overall workforces, while training providers told the researchers that they struggled to attract qualified tutors and that the changes to funding caps made some higher-level standards financially unviable.

The apprenticeship experience 

Apprentices said that the barriers to accessing higher-level apprenticeships for them included a lack of awareness, as well as misconceptions and stigma about the quality of apprenticeship programmes. The management of an apprenticeship alongside current workload was also cited as an issue, as was needing to balance workload with wider commitments like childcare or caring responsibilities. 

The report suggests that the quality of support for higher-level apprentices could be improved by: 

  • Providing apprentices with upfront information about content, tasks, timescales, workplace responsibilities and how to access support available to them prior to starting their apprenticeship.
  • An agreement between apprentices, providers and line managers from the outset on how the minimum 20 per cent off-the-job training will be protected and managed, and the types of employer support the apprentice will access.
  • Support from line managers supporting during the programme through regular catch-ups to review progress and identify any support needs, including ensuring that the workplace culture is supportive of apprentice needs. 

Supporting social mobility 

Fiona Aldridge, director for policy and research at the Learning and Work Institute, said ensuring that people from a diverse range of backgrounds could access these opportunities was key to making sure that the apprenticeship programme also supports social mobility

“Prior to the pandemic, a growing recognition of the role of higher-level apprenticeships in developing skills, accelerating career progression and investing in business growth, resulted in the steady growth of level 4-plus apprenticeships, even as the overall number of apprenticeship starts fell," she said.

"Ensuring that people from a diverse range of backgrounds can access these opportunities is key to ensuring that the programme also supports social mobility. Yet our research shows that apprentices from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds and with learning difficulties and disabilities, in particular, remain underrepresented. And where you live continues to matter; in the most affluent areas of the country, 30 per cent of apprentices were on higher-level programmes, compared with just 18 per cent in the most deprived areas. 

"As we seek to rebuild the economy, it will not be enough to simply get back to where we were. Instead, we will need a greater ambition and a more concerted effort by government, employers and providers to successfully engage and support underrepresented groups in accessing apprenticeships that improve their life chances.”

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateeParker

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