Government claims to have overseen the two millionth apprentice start have been met with caution after Business Secretary Vince Cable conceded around one-in-four learners may not stay the course.
Dr Cable announced the milestone figure, achieved during the course of this parliament, while on a visit to Oxford on Monday (December 8) to meet Paige McConville.
She started the two millionth apprenticeship, in advanced engineering manufacturing with employers FMB and provider Abingdon and Witney College, in August.
But in an interview with FE Week, Dr Cable conceded that not all the vaunted starts would lead to completions, and he accepted the figure included multiple starts per learner and frameworks of less than 12 months’ duration that were outlawed early on in the Parliament.
He said: “We can’t be absolutely confident because of course not all are completed. The completion rate for apprenticeships generally, and I’m going across all levels, is about 73 per cent. It has been up and down around that level for the past five years. Some people start them and do not complete them.
“The basic numerical narrative is we have started the two millionth apprentice and that is the number of starts over the last parliament.
“So far we will have completed over one million apprenticeships, but you won’t see the full effects of the starts for a few years.”
Statistical First Release (SFR) figures indicate that there have been around 1.99m apprentice starts during current parliament, which started around the fourth quarter of 2009/10. But the two million figure is expected to be listed in the next SFR, due late next month.
It comes against the backdrop of a second consecutive annual fall in the number of apprentice starts with 2013/14 down nearly 70,000 on the previous year.
All-age apprenticeship starts were at 440,400 last academic year, having been at 510,200 the previous year, and 520,600 in 2011/12.
Nevertheless, Mick Fletcher, a founder member of the Policy Consortium, said the two million figure was impressive, but he warned against “headline-chasing statistics”.
“The figures are for starts when what matters is successful completion, ideally with progression into sustainable employment,” he said.
“According to the latest figures fewer than three quarters of apprentices successfully completed their programme and of those who completed only around two thirds were kept on by their employer.
“The figure of 2m starts is still impressive, but only achieved by including programmes that are no longer recognised as apprenticeships — those lasting less than six months for example. This explains why despite meeting the target the trend in numbers is downwards.
“Moreover many members of the public would be surprised to learn that nearly half of the total are not young people starting their working life as ministers imply but adults, mainly over the age of 25 and in many cases already employed.
“Political leaders of all colours deserve credit for their consistent support for the apprenticeship programme but their enthusiasm for headline-chasing statistics risks devaluing their real achievements.”