Apprentice starts for 16 to 18 keep falling

The continual downward slide in the numbers of under-19s taking up apprenticeships is “substantial” and “worrying”, Junior Shadow Education Minister Tristram Hunt has said.

He spoke out after the latest Statistical First Release (SFR), published by the Data Service on Thursday, showed that  4,000 fewer 16 to 18-year-olds started apprenticeships from February to April this year compared with the same time last year, a 19 per cent drop.

Over the nine months leading up to April — the end of Q3 —there was a 13 per cent drop in starts overall compared with the same period in 2011/12, with a 10 per cent drop in Q1 and a 16 per cent drop in Q2.

Skills Minister Matthew Hancock told FE Week: “Our priority is to make apprenticeships the very best quality, rooting out any poor provision and ensuring that all apprenticeships last a minimum of a year.”

However, Mr Hunt said: “A tightening up of quality is fine and while we are supportive of apprenticeship reviews that question rigour, that doesn’t equate to a 19 per cent fall.

“Matthew Hancock tries as valiantly as he can but he’s clearly not getting through to the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. This is a terrible indictment of Mr Gove’s lack of interest in those who wish to pursue a vocational future. While the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is pulling its weight, Gove is undermining the apprenticeship brand.

“Mr Hancock needs to spell out the importance of the 16 to 18 scheme, particularly when considering there are one million young people who are NEETs (not in education, employment or education).”

Overall there was a 6 per cent decline in apprenticeship starts across all ages. But higher apprenticeships increased with 2,500 more 16 to 18-year-olds taking them up in the past nine months compared with the same nine months for 2011/12.

Mr Hancock said traineeships would help by “preparing young people for apprenticeships and sustainable jobs”, adding: “We are also putting a stronger focus on higher and advanced level apprenticeships, with the number of people starting higher apprenticeships showing particularly strong growth.”

The fall comes amid the backdrop of a boom in the overall number of starts from 457,200 in 2010/11 to 520,600 last year.

However, the picture for under 19s was 131,700 in 2010/11 compared with 129,900 last year.

In February FE Week reported the first fall of under-19 apprenticeships in three years after figures from the SFR showed 1,800 fewer 16 to 18 apprenticeships last year than in 2010/11, a 1.4 per cent fall.

Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive at the Association of Colleges, said: “The continuing fall in the number of 16-year-old apprentices is an obvious concern. Traineeships may help, although it’s too early to say. We’re also concerned about the reduction in the numbers of people staying in education at 16.”

Stewart Segal, chief executive designate at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said: “Nearly 91,000 under-19 starts over nine months is still a major achievement in such a difficult economic climate. It’s also encouraging that the advanced and higher level starts have held up for this age group.”