Many apprentices 'treading water', warns Sutton Trust

Sutton Trust report also highlights 'striking' gender pay divide among apprentices, especially for those educated to level 3

Julia Belgutay

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The segmentation of apprenticeship by level puts an artificial break on progression, according to a new report commissioned by the Sutton Trust.

The report, entitled Better Apprenticeships – Access, quality and labour market outcomes in the English apprenticeship system, published today, concludes that there is "no expectation that apprenticeship will enable progression to the next occupational or educational level". With the majority of apprenticeships at level 2 and most apprentices under the age of 25 starting their training below their existing level of educational attainment, "many apprentices are treading water", it argues. "This problem has been further entrenched by the [Institute for Apprenticeship's (IfA)] decision to remove qualifications from the new intermediate and advanced apprenticeship standards except in 'special circumstances'. Yet higher and degree apprenticeships are being promoted precisely because they offer individuals the chance to earn money and gain a qualification."

The report also points out that existing employees can be "converted" into apprentices. "They comprise two-thirds of apprentices, making apprenticeship a largely ‘adult’ programme. Although this practice was highlighted in a select committee report in 2008, there is still no robust procedure in place to ensure existing employees are improving their skills rather than just being accredited for their existing competence.”

Furthermore, funding arrangements to not incentivise quality in apprenticeship training, according to the report.  “The apprenticeship levy may encourage more ‘conversion’ as a way for large employers to reclaim their money. As it is based on payroll, it will also raise more money in London and the South East of England and so may contribute to further regional inequality."

Apprentices' education and earnings

The second report within the publication uses administrative data on education and earnings for those who completed the compulsory phase of education, at age 16 in 2003, and, estimating their earnings differential at this time, assesses whether there is a pay differential from undertaking apprenticeships. It concludes that "after controlling for factors including prior attainment, secondary school attainment, secondary school attended, demographics and experiences, our results show a positive earnings differential from starting an apprenticeship in many contexts.”

Having taken account of a range of factors, men who start an apprenticeship earn 23 per cent more than those who left school with only GCSEs and roughly 16 per cent more than those who left education with a level 2 vocational qualification, according to the research. For women, those who start an apprenticeship earn 15 per cent more than those who left school with only GCSEs, and about four per cent more than those who left education with a level 2 qualification.

'Striking' gender pay gap

The report highlights the “striking” gender differences in earnings differential, especially for those educated to level 3, adding this is “mainly driven by the sector of apprenticeship. “Men are more prominent in higher-paying sectors.”

The Sutton Trust recommends there should be more advanced and higher apprenticeships, targeted at younger age groups.  It also says inspections should include specific processes for ensuring that existing employees are participating in substantial training to develop new skills and occupational expertise. “Good quality apprenticeship need to be provided for young people and the apprenticeship levy should be used to provide real training and not the accreditation of existing skills. The report also recommends restrictions on intermediate and advanced apprenticeships offering qualifications should be lifted, and the IfA and the levy should have a widening access function to ensure access to advanced and higher apprenticeships for those from less advantaged backgrounds. 

University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt said it was increasingly clear that the government’s pursuit of its 3 million apprenticeships target was coming at the expense of quality and choice within the system. "Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach which incentivises businesses to push existing employees into apprenticeships, the government should expand the apprenticeship levy to include other forms of high-quality workforce training," she said, adding: "Most importantly, we urgently need the long-awaited careers strategy to ensure that learners of all ages are well supported to understand their options and progress in their learning."

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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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