The heat is on: new uptake figures say it's time to make up our minds on the agenda for Apprenticeships

Blog posts

3 Jul 2015

Becci Newton

Becci Newton

The new stats on Apprenticeships from the Skills Funding Agency and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills make for interesting reading – and provide some insights into the challenges that policymakers are likely to face in achieving the ambition for 3m starts by 2020. The part-year figures for 2014/15 suggest that the overall number of starts by the end of the year is likely to be at a similar level to last year – which, at 440,400 which is somewhat down on the high of 520,600 seen in 2011/12. The ambition for 3m starts will be challenging not least because it is employers who will need to create the Apprenticeship vacancies, and that will depend on a strong economy that requires more people to be trained to perform their jobs as well as an Apprenticeship model that fully meets employers’ needs.

The current radical redesign of the programme provides the vehicle that policymakers hope will encourage more employers to get involved, but delivery of these new Trailblazer Standards is at a very small scale right now and has not yet fed through into the data. Only with more time will we know if they have been successful in creating this necessary momentum – however, what we do know (from our evaluation published earlier this year) is that the success measures for employers who are involved surround the quality of the skills they will benefit from as a result of this new model for training, and not an increasing number of new starts.

There are other indications in the data that some new trends are emerging and these are worth discussing in light of the multiple policy agendas for the programme. For example, while the overall proportion of apprentices aged 16-18 is static, there appears to be a small increase in the number of school leavers entering the programme at 16, although balancing this is a decreasing number of 18-year-olds signing up. The rise in the number of 16-year-olds entering training may suggest that the Apprenticeship brand is growing stronger, and schools are supporting their students to consider all their options to remain in learning between 16 and 18, rather than feeding them through to the academic route.

However, whether the programme is addressing another policy aim – the needs of young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEETs) – is unknown. With large numbers of 16- and 17-year-olds already progressing in education and training, the latest data may suggest a shift in choices but not in the overall number participating. The reducing numbers of 18-year-olds – the age with the highest proportion of NEETS in the 16-18 year range – adds further weight to this view that the programme is not meeting this aim.

While training uptake amongst the youngest age group may be improving, there are falling numbers of 19-24 year olds joining the programme – and this group is more capable of undertaking Level 3 learning to develop the technician skills that commentators believe will drive a more productive economy. The proportion of this age group involved has seemingly fallen from 36.1 per cent to 33.6 per cent over the last year. While the youngest age group will eventually be able to gain Level 3 skills, in the shorter term the supply of these skills may fall short of industry needs.

Interestingly, adults are forming an increasing proportion of starts – this year so far some 40.2 per cent starts are amongst people aged 25+ compared to 36.7 per cent for the last full year. The greatest increase for adult Apprenticeships is seen for 25-34 year olds, although there is also growth in starts amongst 35-44 year olds and 45-59 year olds. The proportion of apprentices aged 60 years and over is the same as the previous year at 0.6 per cent. There is no way of knowing how far these adult apprentices are undertaking substantial programmes of training, or simply gaining accreditation for their existing skills. But the new reform programme aims that any adult apprentices should require training and that other means should be found to deliver accreditation to existing employees – if that is needed.

In other respects, there are few signs of change. Women comprise 51.8 per cent of the cohort, down slightly on last year but still more than half of the overall number of Apprenticeships. As our research into under-representation shows however, that the overall proportion of women is a weak measure - we should be concerned about the subjects women take because this has impacts on their career advancement opportunities as well as for pay. Unfortunately, there are no data available that allow us to assess whether there are any improvements to the gender segregation, which admittedly reflects workforce segregation trends, seen throughout Apprenticeships.

On a similar note, the representation of BME groups is broadly in line with previous years, and reflects representation in the population but our research suggests that this may mask the under-representation of some ethnic groups. Plus our findings show that ethnic under-representation compounds gender segregation. While we cannot comment on equality and diversity within sector subject areas, the overall proportions involved in the broad sectors that are reported on remain largely unchanged. Hence there are significant numbers of apprentices taking Apprenticeships in business, administration and law (28 per cent of the cohort), as well as in health, public services and care (25 per cent). The lack of change in the sector mix may suggest that the picture of under-representation remains unchanged.

In summary, while there are undoubtedly some positive messages to be gleaned from these new stats – such as the rising numbers of the youngest age group – there are also many unanswered questions that have significant implications for Apprenticeship policy as well as for the longer term outcomes for those involved. The overall figures suggest that potentially the ambition for 3m new starts by 2020 could be challenging to meet.

While the reform programme offers a huge potential to make sure that training aligns more firmly to employers’ needs, it is too soon to assess its impact in increasing employer engagement with the programme and, in fact, there are fears that the complexities the new model brings – with employers expected to negotiate the price of training with providers – could actually lead to a decline. We will need a few years for the new model to really bed in to truly understand its effect – but we need to keep the profile of training high in the meantime. Our main message would be that there are risks in trying to address too many policy agendas at one time and our work with employers suggests that the quality agenda is paramount for them and this should drive policy.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.