Apprenticeships are often hailed as having an important role in improving the lives and aspirations of many young learners, providing a key link between education and employment for the next generation.
Alongside this, the role of apprenticeships in improving the lives of young learners is undoubtedly high on the government’s agenda. Their ability to help fill important skills gaps in many sectors across the UK, including medicine, Net Zero, and education, is undeniable.
Yet, intermediate and advanced apprenticeships continue to be a declining option for 16-19-year-olds starting their careers, with young people still facing a number of barriers to accessing higher-quality apprenticeships both in applying to and completing their courses.
Learners from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds face specific barriers in the vocational journey, despite benefitting the most from apprenticeships, leading to the question – is the system delivering on its full potential?
So, what is stopping young people from accessing apprenticeships?
Research has shown that the most common barrier for students taking up apprenticeships and vocational training is a lack of awareness and understanding about wider post-16 opportunities. Youth Employment UK’s Youth Voice Census found that just over a quarter of surveyed students had been told about apprenticeship opportunities more than five times, in comparison to half of students being encouraged to undertake A-Levels. A recent report from the Sutton Trust also found discouraging implications for application diversity, as students from a working-class background were:
- more likely to report finding the application process for an apprenticeship difficult to navigate
- less likely to have friends and family that were supportive of their decision.
Course requirements may also be a barrier for many disadvantaged students. Research from the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) found that whilst Level 2 English and maths is often a requirement for intermediate and advanced apprenticeships, only 48% of disadvantaged pupils achieved a grade 4 or above in GCSE English and maths in 2021/22 compared to 69% of students across the whole cohort. As such, the requirement for level 2 in English and maths is a particular barrier for disadvantaged young people, even if they may have the required technical skills.
A further barrier to access is the lack of affordability in apprenticeships. Although the minimum apprenticeship wage was increased to £5.28 an hour in April 2023, it still remains low, particularly with cost-of-living pressures. For disadvantaged students, this can be particularly off-putting, with some young people choosing higher-paid alternatives or leaving early as they cannot afford to live on the wage. Where students choose apprenticeships, they may have to take on additional part-time work as a result, which can affect their overall success on the course or even the completion rate.
How can apprenticeship access be supported?
Whilst there has been some positive change in the number of young people having conversations around apprenticeships with their peers, teachers, and parents or carers, further work is still needed to demonstrate the benefits of vocational training to young people.
- Careers information and guidance is vital for encouraging young people from less advantaged backgrounds to explore different pathways and opportunities. Work on apprenticeship outreach by the Sutton Trust suggests more should be done to encourage and resource employers, colleges, training providers and universities to undertake further outreach work to those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
- With this, schools should be supported to provide high-quality careers advice on apprenticeships, with a review from the Government on how existing campaigns promote vocational training and raise awareness for students, parents, carers, and teaching staff.
- The NFER suggests one way to support students in accessing high-quality vocational opportunities could be discouraging employers from setting thresholds around having maths and English already, particularly in industries where one or both aren’t an essential skill. Alongside this, additional help should be given to those young people who are required to undertake further study during their apprenticeship.
- As part of this, their report provides a further option of financial incentives from the Government to encourage training providers, colleges and employers to take on young people who do not meet the minimum requirements for English and Maths at Level 2 with an aim to provide additional learning support for these individuals.
- Finally, in light of the cost-of-living crisis, the NFER has argued there needs to be a re-evaluation of the minimum apprenticeship wage and additional cost pressures for young people. As one example, the Government could consider extending the 16-19 bursary fund to help apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds and areas of geographical inequality with travel costs resulting from often expensive and difficult work journeys.
With upskilling so central to solving many of the UK’s workforce and education problems, it’s time to be laser-focused on how we can make apprenticeships and vocational training deliver for all. These are a few proposals that could help those from disadvantaged backgrounds access life-changing training opportunities, but in order to realise young people’s full potential, there needs to be a concerted effort to reach, advise, and support the most under-represented groups to ensure everyone can access high-quality post-16 opportunities.