This week, the new Skills Minister, Robert Halfon, announced that the apprenticeship levy will launch as planned in April 2017, despite heavy lobbying from business.

The government’s focus on apprenticeships since 2015 – with initiatives like the target of three million starts by 2020, the apprenticeship levy, and the Skills Plan – has been good to see, especially now, as we prepare to withdraw from the EU.

However uncertain businesses might understandably be feeling about the post-referendum environment, we know from our charity partners that young people are feeling just as uncertain about their future prospects. These initiatives are welcome acknowledgement by government that concerted action is needed to reassure them that their future is our priority.

With only 5% of young people presently recorded as undertaking an apprenticeship at 16, we are fully supportive of the incentives to increase this number, hopefully significantly.

But questions remain around the viability of the new pathways outlined in the Skills Plan, particularly as a vehicle for the government’s lauded social mobility aims.

The main question we have is whether the most disadvantaged young people will actually be able to access these apprenticeships?

It’s true that intermediate level apprenticeships only require students to have attained a Level 1 in English and maths. Yet very few are advertised without the requirement of A*-C in these subjects.

While financial incentives may see more 16-18 take ups, there is little in the way of support for those without their Level 2 English and maths.

It is no secret that the number of young people struggling to attain an A*-C in English and maths at 16 is skewed towards those from a disadvantaged background. While 65% of young people not on free school meals achieve their English and maths passes at 16, just 40% of those on free school meals do. Therefore, without additional support to improve GCSE grades, apprenticeships are unlikely to be a real option for the remaining 60%.

That brings us to the question around the support currently available to young people to help them get an A*-C in English and maths. The primary channel is FE colleges as each year, over a third of 16 year olds end up there.

Disadvantaged students are disproportionately represented in these institutions and often, their first port of call is undertaking some form of remedial English and maths having failed to attain an A*-C at GCSE. Which, for institutions set up to deliver technical education, is no mean feat.

As cited in our report: The road most travelled? only 9% of young people unable to attain an A*-C by 16 go on to do so by 19. The impact of new GCSEs and grading changes is likely to compound this in future.

Another potential source of support to access apprenticeships is traineeships. However, we would argue that in their current form, they are not acting as a good enough pathway to apprenticeships – only 22% of trainees progressed on to apprenticeships last year.

Even if some trainees simply want to get straight in to work, it is still our duty to prepare young people for work by ensuring they have the requisite skills to access and keep quality jobs and apprenticeships are undoubtedly a valuable stepping stone.

If traineeships don’t provide the support they need and FE colleges can’t, disadvantaged young people are unlikely to be able to access apprenticeships.

Which bring us back to our question: can apprenticeships act as drivers of social mobility, if the barriers to accessing them are too high for the young people who arguably need them the most? We look forward to working with government in the coming months to highlight our concerns and explore solutions together.

Blog co-authored by:

Jatin Patel (Campaign Manager, Impetus-PEF)
Neha Mahendru (Investment Director, Impetus-PEF)

Impetus − The Private Equity Foundation
About The Author
Jatin Patel is the Campaign Manager at Impetus-PEF. Jatin is an experienced advocate, having previously worked on campaigns for youth charity Fixers and as Student Union President of Brunel University. He joined Impetus-PEF from the former Olympic Athletes’ Village, where he managed stakeholder and community relations as part of the village’s transition from post-Games to ‘legacy’ neighbourhood. Jatin holds a MA in International Relations from the University of Sussex and a BSc in Politics and History from Brunel University. Follow Jatin on Twitter: @JatTel

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