Apprenticeship starts: our analysis

The Department for Education released apprenticeship and levy statistics for England yesterday. Figures show there have been 361,400 apprenticeship starts between August 2018 and June 2019, a welcome increase of 19,700 starts.

However, the picture looks slightly less optimistic when compared against full apprenticeship starts rates over previous academic years. The number of starts fell from 475,800 in the 2015/16 academic year, to 458,860 the following year, with a further drop to 339,250 in 2017/18. Thus, Apprenticeship starts dropped by 26% in the year of the Apprenticeship Levy’s introduction. Although the apprenticeship starts figures provided for 2018 and 2019 are provisional, they suggest that despite the current increase in apprenticeship starts, we may still be below the number of starts prior to the Levy’s introduction.

Higher Level vs Lower Level Apprenticeship starts

The Government has long insisted that despite the number of apprenticeship starts, the reforms introduced in 2017 have led to an increase in the quality and an increase in the uptake of higher level apprenticeships. 

Higher level (level 4+) apprenticeships have indeed increased significantly since the reforms and continue to do so. Between 2016/17 and 2017/18 higher level starts rose by 32%. By contrast, however, intermediate (level 2) apprenticeships starts decreased by 38% and advanced (level 3) starts by 16% over the same period.

Although the increase in uptake of higher level apprenticeships could mean that apprentices are receiving training in higher level skills, boosting prospects for career progression and pay, the decrease in level 2 and 3 apprenticeships raises questions about whether the system is actually training and bringing in new entrants into the world of work. Failing to do so risks creating gaps in opportunities for young people. 

Longer apprenticeships

Placements are also lengthening, with the expected duration of apprenticeships increasing from 511 days to 581 days. Similarly, average associated expected off-the-job training hours have increased from 490 to 630 hours in 2017/18, although these figures are indicative. Interestingly, despite the reduction in starts, it is estimated that total expected off-the-job training hours in 2017/18 are only about 7% lower than in the previous year, mainly due to the increase in higher level starts.

It ca be argued that this trend this is leading to more quality apprenticeships, but some employers have expressed concern about the increased length of training and its effects on their businesses. While high quality training is welcome and should be an integral part of apprenticeships, the Government should ensure that the duration of apprenticeships and other requirements do not put unnecessary and additional hurdles in the way of businesses.

On the whole, it is encouraging to see such positive uptake of higher quality, higher level apprenticeships. But if we are to equip our future workforce with the range of skills our economy needs, it is important that lower level apprenticeships are equally encouraged, bringing in new entrants.  Furthermore, with apprenticeship starts still less than they were prior to the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy, the new Government must take on board businesses’ recommendations for reform to improve flexibility and make the system simpler and more user-friendly both for employers and apprentices.