The government has conceded that under 19 apprenticeships were proving a “major challenge” after official figures showed a 10 per cent fall in the number of starts.
The number of 16 to 18-year-olds who started apprenticeships in the final quarter of the last academic year dropped 5,200 from the previous year to 22,000.
The figures, from the latest statistical first release, also showed how the total number of starts last year was 126,300 — a two per cent decrease on 2010/11.It was the first dip since 2008/09, when there were 99,400 starts.
The government had hoped to hit 133,500 16 to 18 apprenticeship starts for the last financial year and for 2012/13 was aiming at 140,200, with the Education Funding Agency setting aside £833m.
However, the latest figures could still be updated, and across all apprenticeship age groups they showed a 9.9 per cent rise last year to 505,200 starts.
A joint statement from the government and the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) said: “It is encouraging that despite being rigorous on quality and introducing tougher standards, apprenticeships are growing overall.
“Not surprisingly, raising the level of participation in apprenticeships among 16 to 18-year-olds is a major challenge within a difficult economic climate and the latest figures reflect that.”
FE Minister Matthew Hancock said: “Hitting the half-million mark is a momentous achievement for this government’s apprenticeship programme.
“It shows our passion for skills, and is a ringing endorsement from employers and apprentices alike, who are reaping the benefits of a more highly-skilled workforce.
“This rise comes despite tougher rules to make apprenticeships more rigorous.”
But the falling apprentice figures come just months after the government tried to boost numbers by allowing more businesses to ask for training grants worth £1,500.
The economic conditions are obviously a factor in terms of employers being able to offer places”
Only firms recruiting 16 to 24-year-olds with less than 250 employees could apply the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers, but the change meant employers with less than 1,000 staff could also apply. Up to 40,000 grants are being provided.
Shadow FE Minister Gordon Marsden said: “The statistics highlight the Tory-led government’s failure to achieve enough take-up of quality apprenticeships for young people crying out for these opportunities.
“The fact the number of 16 to 18 apprentices has fallen in comparison to last year also shows their failure to properly engage with businesses or to convince them to participate in taking on apprentices in the current economic climate.
“We would take action by using public procurement and government contracts to boost apprenticeship places. Ministers need to get a grip and urgently boost apprenticeship opportunities for young people, but they have refused to back our plans or acknowledge the findings of the Holt report they commissioned.
“What’s more, the fact that the numbers dropped steeply in the final quarter suggest this decline could be an accelerating trend.”
With the outcome of Doug Richard’s review of apprenticeships due out soon, an Association of Employment and Learning Providers spokesperson also called for a new pre-apprenticeship programme.
“The economic conditions are obviously a factor in terms of employers being able to offer places,” they said.
“Moreover, employers are raising the bar on entry requirements for full apprentices and this is why we feel a comprehensive pre-apprenticeship programme is now needed.”
And Association of Colleges skills policy manager Teresa Frith said: “Many young people are not being given the appropriate advice and guidance about options post-16.”
To understand the decline in 16 to 18 apprenticeship starts, we need to consider the impact of changes to the definition of an apprenticeship.
The government blames the economic conditions, but there is nothing new there – the truth is much closer to home.
The Coalition passed legislation – drawn up by the Labour Party in power – with the effect of bringing an end to programme-led apprenticeships.
These apprenticeships were popular with thousands of unemployed 16 to 18-year-olds at training providers like Zenos (now Pearson in Practice).
Many programme-led apprenticeships continue to be delivered legitimately, but under the title access to apprenticeships with providers such as the De Vere Academy.
However, crucially, unlike the old programme-led apprenticeships, access to apprenticeships are not counted in government apprenticeship statistics until the learner has got a job.
Hidden away in the latest figures [SFR table 19.1 note 4] we find that 5,400 apprenticeships across all ages were on the access to apprenticeship scheme.
But a staggering 4,300 (80 per cent) remain unemployed. Some learners may yet become employed, but the SFA funding rules say providers should have no more than 10 per cent.
So in truth, the pre-2011/12 figures were inflated as they contained, I estimate, tens of thousands of unemployed learners.
To repeat, today these learners would not be counted as apprenticeships.
So let’s stop blaming the economy, and focus on policies that help as many 16 to 18-year-olds get the education and training they deserve.
Nick Linford, Editor