Disadvantaged young people are being squeezed out of the apprenticeships system in favour of established professionals in wealthy areas.

The centre right think tank Onward in a report out today say that a sharp fall in small firms offering apprenticeships and a shift away from entry-level to higher apprenticeships has meant fewer school leavers are becoming apprentices, and more established professionals in big firms are doing them to top-up their skills.

As a result, large businesses have increased the number of apprentices they are hiring and fewer and fewer of these are from deprived backgrounds.

The number of people doing 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.

There has been an exodus of apprenticeships from the North and coastal areas.

The number of people in the Red Wall starting apprenticeships has dropped by a third, and fallen in all but two Northern constituencies, since 2011.

Meanwhile, some of the greatest increases in the number of people doing apprenticeships are in wealthy parts of London such as Battersea, Wimbledon, Chelsea and Fulham. The decline in intermediate apprenticeships, alongside the rise in apprenticeships in large companies across richer areas, is behind this trend.

This is being driven by changing employment practices as businesses turn their backs on the traditional apprenticeship.

The reforms to the apprenticeship system over the last decade has dramatically shifted how businesses hire apprentices. Smaller businesses have become less inclined to hire an apprentice and larger businesses have been incentivised to focus on existing staff over providing opportunities for new ones. Businesses with between 100 to 249 employees are roughly as likely to only offer apprenticeships to existing employees as they are to only offer apprenticeships to new recruits.

As a result opportunities for individuals from poorer families are drying up. In 2015, there was less than a one percentage point difference in the share of apprentices from deprived backgrounds hired by SMEs and by large businesses. As of 2019, this gap has nearly quadrupled. It suggests SMEs are championing social mobility while large businesses are using apprenticeships for other means.

Without further reform, they say this shortage of apprenticeships will become a barrier to the levelling up agenda.

Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee:

“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’. My two favourite words in the English language are “degree apprenticeships” which represent a key avenue for young people. They provide students with an opportunity to earn while they learn, receive on-the-job technical training, and students are guaranteed a well-paid, and good job on their graduation.

“I welcome this new report from Onward which makes some important recommendations to help improve the apprenticeship system. Extending these avenues to all learners will enable every young person to climb the educational ladder of opportunity.”


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