Before entering Number 10 for the first time as Prime Minister, Theresa May pledged to make Britain "a country that works for all, not just a privileged few". She has started to set out her vision for boosting social mobility, acknowledging that advancement in Britain "is still too often determined by wealth or circumstance; by an accident of birth rather than talent." The government’s focus on apprenticeships should be seen in this light.
More than just a way of meeting skills needs and boosting productivity; apprenticeships offer the potential to help drive social mobility. At their best, apprenticeships can do just that. Through a blend of on-the-job training and off-the-job learning, they can give people the experience and skills that they need to progress and to build a career.
But as research released by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) today shows, the current system is letting down too many young people.
There is clearly a problem with the transition from education to work for many young people. While unemployment is at a historic low, youth unemployment remains a concern. Young people are two and a half times as likely to be unemployed as those aged over 25. The employment rate for young people with level 2 qualifications is 70 per cent, almost 20 percentage points lower than those of their peers who leave full-time education with a level 3 or higher education qualification. The wage returns for these qualifications are low, and progression is poor - just two in five studying to level 2 at 17 progress to a level 3 qualification.
The government have set an ambitious plan to deliver 3 million apprenticeships during this Parliament. And while the total number of apprenticeships has risen, the number of 16- to 18-year-old apprentices has actually shrunk in the last four years. There does not seem to be an overwhelming demand from employers for young apprentices, and few young people choose this pathway.
For the 90,000 young people studying a level 2 apprenticeship, there are very real concerns about the quality and suitability of the offer. With the government’s lazer-like focus on quantity, there is a real risk that quality will go unaddressed. Boosting numbers without improving quality would just mean more young learners let down, and would risk devaluing the brand.
Keeping up with Europe
To understand how we could drive up the quality of apprenticeships, it is instructive to look at how our system compares to those of our continental neighbours. First, apprentices in the UK tend to have one day a week for off-the-job learning. In Germany, a construction apprentice will spend only half of their time in work, with the other half divided between the college and a practical training centre.
Apprenticeships in the UK are often narrowly job-specific. A bricklaying apprentice in Denmark will learn not just a broad range of manual skills, but also non-manual competencies like dealing with waste and ordering, a foreign language, sciences, technical drawing, citizenship, labour law, and environmental protection. They learn not just how to do a job – they get an introduction to an entire industry.
Apprenticeships in the UK tend to have a limited amount of general education. In successful European vocational programmes, there is a much stronger emphasis on continuing general education.
Finally, level 2 apprenticeships in the UK last only 12 months and only lead to the higher levels of study that can really help to build a successful and sustainable career for 39 per cent of young people. All of the programmes we looked at in Europe last a minimum of two years and typically help people to progress beyond a level 2 qualification.
Beyond these differences, our current system also differs significantly from the recommendations of the Sainsbury Review of technical education. Sainsbury called for apprenticeships to constitute a two-year course with a common core of knowledge, rather than the one-year courses with limited requirements for core knowledge that we currently offer. Most notably, while Sainsbury argues for a nationally recognised certificate for each of the 15 technical education routes, the government are phasing out the requirement for a nationally recognised qualification in apprenticeships.
Level 2 apprenticeships are not working for young learners. In a report published today, we call for these to be phased out and replaced with a distinct pre-apprenticeship programme for young people. This would offer a balance of on-the-job training, with high-quality off-the-job learning, provided by FE colleges. The pre apprenticeship would include a recognised qualification and there would be one programme for each of the 15 technical pathways recommended by Sainsbury. Pre-Apprenticeships would be specifically designed to help young people progress onto a full level 3 apprenticeship at age 18 or 19. To stimulate demand for young people on Pre-Apprenticeships, businesses should be permitted to use their Apprenticeship Levy funds to subsidise a young person’s wages.
The current system is failing too many young people. We believe that pre-apprenticeships could better support the transition to work, boosting the number of young people in high quality earning and learning, and helping them get the best start in their careers.
Joe Dromey is senior research fellow on work, skills and families at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).
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