A new report warns that access to vocational alternatives to university has plummeted since the Government reformed the system.

A sharp drop off in small firms offering apprenticeships and a shift away from entry-level to higher apprenticeships has meant fewer school leavers becoming apprentices, and more established professionals in big firms taking them to top-up their existing skills.

According to the report by Onward, a think tank set up to develop economic opportunity and strengthen communities, in Darlington, the number of people doing apprenticeships is down by more than 48 per cent, with Harrogate and Knaresborough down by 70.27%.

Read more: Minister meets apprentices at training centre visit

This means as large businesses have increased the number of apprentices they are hiring, fewer and fewer of these are from deprived backgrounds.

The number of entry-level apprenticeships (Level 2) has fallen by more than half (56%) since 2011. This is double the overall fall in apprenticeships available (25%). And the result is clear: There are now nearly twice as many over-25 year olds doing apprenticeships than 19-year olds. In 2008 the opposite was true.

The increased difficulty that working class young people face in trying to access apprenticeships is in large part caused by the Government’s reforms over the last decade, including its flagship Apprenticeship Levy. Given the importance of good university alternatives to levelling up, it is vital that ministers fix the apprenticeships system.

Onward’s report, Course Correction, sets out four ways to do this:

Fully fund apprenticeships for 16-18 year olds. Currently the Government funds A-levels but not entry-level apprenticeships. This needs to change.

Give regional mayors more responsibility for brokering apprenticeships. Mayors have shown that they can successfully deliver apprenticeships and should get more powers in this area, particularly on working with local SMEs.

Actively encourage big businesses to recruit more school leavers via apprenticeships and end the subsidy for big businesses that support apprenticeships beyond their apprenticeship levy fund

Publish data on apprenticeship outcomes. Ministers should publish comparative data so that young people can see the value of an apprenticeship when they are considering their future.

Will Tanner, Director of Onward and former Deputy Head of Policy to Theresa May, said:

“Apprenticeships are not delivering and without far-reaching reform will work against ministers’ ambitions to level up the country. Working class school leavers in poorer places need a decent alternative to university, not a system that increasingly serves existing workers in big businesses based in cities.

“The reforms of the last decade have improved quality and increased funding but have meant apprenticeships are increasingly used to upskill existing workers - often graduates - while working class school leavers are left short-changed. Apprenticeships should be a vocational pathway into a prestigious career not a training top-up for mid-career professionals.”

Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee, said: “For too long, the mantra has been “university, university, university” when it should be “skills, skills, skills”. The Government are making some important progress on this issue – the Skills Bill, Lifelong Learning Entitlement and additional £3 billion to support the sector are welcome initiatives. But more needs to be done to rocket boost this agenda - access to vocational and non-academic routes is essential to build the skills capital we need as a nation. We must say, ‘goodbye to Mr Chips and hello to James Dyson’.

Martin McTague, National Chair of the Federation of Small Business, said: “Apprenticeships are a great way to bring fresh perspectives into a business and upskill the next generation, so it’s been really disheartening to see such a drop off in starts, especially within young people, in recent years.

“This report marks an important intervention and contains a lot of ideas that should be given careful consideration. It is right to focus on how the system can help create new jobs for young people.

“We’re pleased to see our recommendation to extend the £3,000 incentive for taking on an apprentice included as part of this project.

“We’re also encouraging policymakers to look at how they can get more unspent levy funds into the small businesses."


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