Recent data provides an insight into important trends around apprenticeships stretching back in some instances to 1996 - offering a comprehensive understanding of how they have fared in England over more than two decades
Apprenticeships have been a part of England's labour market for centuries, offering opportunities for individuals to learn and train while working and earning a wage.
Fast forward to the academic year 1996/97, when apprenticeship-related data began to be collected, and 65,000 individuals embarked on apprenticeships. In subsequent years, as government investment increased, the number of starters rose rapidly.1
It should be noted that there is a debate about how changes in definitions of apprenticeships affect the data.
Putting those concerns to one side for now, the most recent figures reveal a sudden decline in the number of individuals starting apprenticeships, 376,000 down from the previous year's 495,000. Although still significantly more than in 1996, this is nevertheless the lowest number of apprenticeship starts that England has seen since 2009/10.
The disruption caused by the introduction of a new funding scheme, the Apprenticeship Levy, in May 2017 could be to blame for this. The Augar review of post-18 education in England also highlighted a 'greater emphasis on quality' as responsible for this downward turn, as 'the new requirements for off-the-job training [introduced with the Levy] made many former apprenticeships ineligible to continue'.2
|Year||Number of apprenticeship starts|
Reduction in older starters
Apprenticeships are available at a range of levels - from GCSE through to degree - meaning that they are open to many individuals including school leavers and mature employees hoping to upskill or retrain.
Interestingly, although overall apprenticeship starts decreased in 2017/18 compared with previous years, this decline was more concentrated among older apprentices:
- In 2016/17, 46% of apprenticeship starters were over the age of 24, but in 2017/18, this declined to 41%.
- In 2016/17, 29% of apprenticeship starters were under 19 years old, but in 2017/18, this increased to 30%.
North East England affected most
All regions saw a fall in the number of apprenticeship starts between 2016/17 and 2017/18. The largest decrease was in the North East, where the number of starts decreased by 33%.
London and the South East of England were both impacted the least, with declines of only 17% between the two years in question.
Male majority returns
For the six years between 2010/11 and 2016/17, women were more numerous than men in taking up apprenticeships. The most recent figures paint a different picture, however, with men constituting a slight majority (51%) of all apprenticeship starts in 2017/18.
Increasing proportion of apprentices with a disability
According to the report, 'the proportion of starts by apprentices with learning difficulties or disabilities has been steadily increasing since 2011/12'. Despite the overall downturn in apprenticeship starts, this trend continues to be shown in the most recent figures.
The proportion of apprenticeship starts by individuals with a disability and/or learning difficulties increased to 11.2% in 2017/18, from 10.3% the previous year.
Proportion of BAME apprentices stable
The majority of individuals embarking on English apprenticeships are white (87% in 2017/18). However, despite the recent overall declines in apprenticeship starts, the proportion of starters from BAME backgrounds stayed the same across 2016/17 and 2017/18 at 11.2%.
BAME apprenticeship starters have increased steadily from 2008/09 - the earliest year covered in the report - when they constituted around 8% of new apprentices.
This share remains below the proportion of BAME individuals in UK society as a whole and clearly, meaning more must be done to ensure that training and education opportunities are available to all parts of society.
Apprenticeships concentrated in certain subjects
Four sector areas have dominated the apprenticeship programme since 2009/10 - as far back as the data allows us to look - though exact figures and order of popularity has fluctuated slightly in this time. The 2017/18 data continues this trend, with most apprenticeships being in:
- Business, administration and law - 30% of all starts.
- Health, public services and care - 24% of all starts.
- Engineering and manufacturing technologies - 16% of all starts.
- Retail and commercial enterprise - 14% of all starts.
That apprenticeships are highly concentrated in these areas is highlighted in the Augar review as a potential hindrance to the government's attempts to tackle skills shortages: 'The low number of apprenticeships in the priority areas in the Industrial Strategy, and the small numbers at levels 4 and above, indicates a clear mismatch between the economy's strategic demands and current apprenticeship starts and employer activity.'3
Employment and earnings advantages
Despite these concerns, the above figures do hint at some positive stories. Namely, rising proportions of individuals with disabilities or learning difficulties starting apprenticeships, BAME apprentice numbers resisting the general downward trajectory of starts, and school leavers continuing to perceive apprenticeships as viable routes into employment - evidenced by the increasing proportion of under 19-year-olds beginning apprenticeships.
Furthermore, Augar acknowledged that apprenticeships are associated with 'better employment prospects' and a 'positive earnings differential that persists up to at least age 28' - though the returns vary by sector, level of apprenticeship and gender.4
Apprenticeships should clearly still be viewed as valuable alternatives to traditional higher education, despite the legitimate concerns surrounding the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy.
- Apprenticeship statistics for England, House of Commons Library, 2019.
- Post-18 review of education and funding: independent panel report, Department for Education, 2019 p. 148.
- Augar, p. 151.
- Augar, p. 149.
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