In December 2019 we convened a roundtable of senior HR practitioners to discuss the future of the apprenticeship system in England, focusing on how to ensure that it provides: a high-quality training route, as well as a strong pathway to the labour marker for young people.

So how well is the current system delivering in these two areas?

How does the apprenticeship system measure up on quality?

Apprenticeship provision in England is still weighted towards intermediate/level 2 (43% of starts), which means that we lag considerably behind the best systems in Europe – such as Germany, Switzerland and Austria – where nearly all apprenticeships are at advanced or higher level.

The concentrations of starts at lower levels might not be of concern if these apprenticeships are stepping stones to further learning. Yet, despite some great individual schemes the evidence suggests that overall this isn’t happening as much as we might like. For instance, the last employer apprenticeship evaluation survey showed that while only a third of employers offered progression to a higher-level apprenticeship, only 16% actually provided it. Non-completions also continue to be a problem, around a third of apprentices don’t complete, this compares a non-continuation rate of just 6% figure for those students who opt to go university.

Recent policy reforms have started to shift provision to higher-level apprenticeships. Yet, despite this several quality concerns remain. It has been reported that too many standards are narrow and overlapping, restricting the extent to which apprentices gain transferable skills. Other commentators have also pointed to the proliferation of apprenticeship standards as an indicator of a lack of ‘occupational breadth’. There are now 500 standards approved for delivery, with over 100 in development. This compares with just 200 apprenticeship occupations in Austria, 320 in Germany, 230 in Switzerland, and around 100 in Denmark.

And how well is the apprenticeship system working for young people?

In 2005, the then government made a change to apprenticeships policy that took the English system out of step with most countries, by extending the programme to those aged 25 and above. This had a dramatic impact on the age profile of apprenticeship starts and meant that almost all (70%) of pre-levy apprenticeship growth was down to the expansion of the system to older age groups, apprenticeship starts amongst those age 19 and under, on the other hand, flat lined. And coupled with the fact that two thirds of apprenticeship starts go to existing employees rather than new labour market entrants, suggests that system is not working as well as it could as a strong pathway into the labour market for young people.

Is a fundamental rethink required?

Roundtable attendees agreed that further reforms would be necessary for the system to deliver both a high-quality training route and a strong pathway into the labour market for young people but warned against a radical overhaul. The following reflections were provided by participants:

  • Greater clarify is required on definition and purpose of apprenticeships, as well as on what success looks like for individuals, employers and society.
  • We need to recognise that not all jobs are suitable for an apprenticeship as they as they do not have a specific and substantive learning journey.
  • HR has a key role to play, as better workplaces create better apprenticeships, but there is a need to provide more support to employers to boost internal capacity to deliver high quality apprenticeship places, including guidance on effective line management.
  • There needs to be a greater focus on ensuring progression, this should be baked into the apprenticeship journey and career pathways clearly articulated to apprentices.
  • A greater focus should be placed on preparing young people for the workplace, including for example, financial management skills, as well as ensuring apprenticeships include the development of broader ‘essential’ transferable skills as well as technical/job specific.
  • More collaboration is required between all parts of the system; between employers within a sector, as well as between schools, colleges, training providers and employers. This includes greater involvement of all stakeholders in the provision of better information, advice and guidance.
  • Employers should be encouraged to share best practice across sectors to ensure that where apprenticeships are working, others can gain their insights.

About the author

Lizzie Crowley, Senior Policy Adviser - Skills

Lizzie is a policy and research professional with over 13 years’ experience in the employment and skills arena, having worked with both the public and private sector to develop high-quality research to inform organisational practice, public policy and shape the public debate.

Prior to joining the CIPD Lizzie led The Work Foundation's research and policy development on the youth labour market – and has published a number of influential reports on youth unemployment. She has regularly appeared on national and regional TV and radio, including BBC Breakfast, BBC the One Show, the Today Programme and Channel 4 news. Lizzie graduated in Sociology and has a master's degree in Social Science Research Methods, both from the University of Glasgow.

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