Disadvantaged workers being ‘failed’ by apprenticeships system, government advisers warn

“This is an easy win for the government in its attempts at levelling up – if it can get this right," SMC chair says
Apprentices with Boris Johnson, who promised to "guarantee apprenticeships for young people". Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images

Workers from disadvantaged backgrounds are being “left behind” by the UK’s apprenticeships system, the government’s own social mobility advisers have warned.

A new report by the Social Mobility Commission says there has been a 36% drop in apprenticeship starts among people from deprived backgrounds since a major reform of the system in 2017.

That compares with a drop of 23% for apprentices from more well-off backgrounds – with older and female apprentices particularly hard-hit.

Meanwhile the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds starting degree-level apprenticeships – which are equivalent to a bachelors degree – has tumbled by 13%.

The report’s authors say that apprenticeships are “one of the few indisputably effective tools of social mobility currently available to the government”.

They can, the commission’s co-chairs Sandra Wallace and Steven Cooper say, boost earnings and lead to “richer, more fulfilled working lives”.

“Yet the system is not working,” they warn. “Instead, the main beneficiaries of apprenticeships are the people who do not need them.”

The government’s apprenticeship levy, which was brought in in 2017, sees all employers with annual paybills of more than £3m asked to pay a charge to fund apprenticeships.

But the report warns that the charge has “disproportionately funded higher-level apprenticeships for learners from more advantaged communities, rather than those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds”.

“Today, workplace learners from more deprived backgrounds are less likely to get selected for an apprenticeship than their more privileged peers,” it says.

“If they are successful, it is likely to be for an entry-level Intermediate placement – usually working in a sector where despite their importance to the economy overall they have traditionally lower rates of pay, such as health, education or hospitality.”

'An easy win for the government'

Report author Alison Battiston said the coronavirus pandemic was only likely to have “made the disadvantaged gap worse”.

She added: “There needs to be urgent consideration of the impact of the apprenticeship levy on social mobility outcomes.”

Cooper, the commission’s interim chair, added: “This is an easy win for the government in its attempts at levelling up – if it can get this right. The government must look at the structural barriers in place and take action to channel resources where they will have the greatest effect.”

The findings come after Boris Johnson pledged to “guarantee apprenticeships for young people” as he acknowledged the UK would face “many, many job losses” in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.

But Labour said the report showed apprentices faced a “bleak” future “without urgent government action”.

Shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said: “If the government is serious about offering an ‘apprenticeship guarantee’ it will heed calls from the FE [further education] sector for a post-Covid skills funding package, address the barriers to success and support employers to provide the opportunities and decent pay new apprentices need to succeed.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are looking at how we can make sure more people and businesses can take advantage of apprenticeships in the future including supporting employers, especially small and medium-sized businesses, to take on new apprentices this year."

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