Apprenticeships: a vaccine won’t be a panacea

2 December 2020

By Andy Norman

4 minute read

Policymakers shouldn’t expect the resumption of 'normal life' to solve the apprenticeship system’s underlying shortcomings, writes Andy Norman for tes.

The outbreak of Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on the apprenticeship system in England. The latest official figures showed starts fell by 45.5 per cent over lockdown. The fall in apprenticeship opportunities has been particularly acute for young people at lower levels, knocking out a key point of entry into well-paid, highly skilled work.

However, while the pandemic has undoubtedly made things worse, these are problems that the system has grappled with for years. Policymakers shouldn’t expect a Covid-19 vaccine and the resumption of “normal life” to solve the system’s underlying shortcomings.

The number of people starting an apprenticeship in the 2019-20 academic year fell by 18 per cent compared with 2018-19. Much – but not all – of this is owing to a sharp drop over lockdown. While starts fell by nearly half between March and July, data for the period up to March 2020 suggests starts were 7 per cent below levels seen in the previous academic year. As chart 1 (below) shows, Covid-19 can’t take all of the blame for this year’s fall in starts.

Chart 1: percentage change in apprenticeship starts vs previous full academic year.

Apprenticeship opportunities for young people have been particularly hard hit by Covid-19, with starts down 66 per cent for under 19s, compared with 38 per cent for over 25s.

Yet, as chart 2 (below) illustrates, the move away from young apprentices and towards adults started in 2017-18, Covid-19 has simply made this existing trend worse. The share of starts that went to under 19s fell from 28 per cent to 24 per cent between 2017-18 and 2019-20, compared with a rise from 41 per cent to 47 per cent for over 25s.

The trend in levels tells a similar story. Intermediate (level 2) apprenticeship starts fell by 70 per cent over lockdown. Higher (level 4+) apprenticeship starts fell by just 3 per cent. Again, this is an existing trend – the share of intermediate starts has steadily fallen from 60 per cent in 2014-15 to 31 per cent in 2019-20 (see chart 3, also below). The share of higher-level starts grew from 4 per cent to 26 per cent. While some of this fall is down to commendable efforts to root out poor-quality, low-level courses, there is no denying that the system is increasingly drifting away from offering a trusted first step into high-skilled work for young people.

Chart 2: Share of apprenticeship starts by age
Chart 3: Share of apprenticeship starts by level

Beyond firefighting the short-term effects of Covid-19 on apprenticeships, what should policymakers be doing to address these long term weaknesses in the apprenticeship system? The first thing is to resist the growing calls to add flexibility to the apprenticeship levy. As I have explored in more detail previously, the existing flexibilities of the levy have allowed employers to rebrand existing training for high-level staff as apprenticeships, meaning young people at lower levels have missed out.

The levy needs less flexibility, not more. The government is right to financially incentivise employers to take on more young apprentices during the pandemic – although the current £2,000 bonus does not go nearly far enough, as argued in the recent CPP report, Reskilling for Recovery.

Moving forward, the government should aim to further shift incentives and funding rules in favour of young learners. This should include ring-fencing a proportion of levy funds for young people at lower levels and addressing the injustice that apprenticeships are the only form of learning for under 19s that is not fully funded by the Treasury. The government should also ensure employers contribute 75 per cent of the cost of level 6-7 apprenticeships for adults.

With the recent good news of multiple effective Covid-19 vaccines on the horizon, hopes are growing of a return to normal life in 2021. But a vaccine won’t be a panacea for the underlying problems of apprenticeship provision in England. The system has for years been drifting away from offering young people a first step on the ladder to well-paid technical careers. To drive social mobility and inclusive growth after Covid-19, policymakers must ensure the apprenticeship system works for those who need it most.