While apprenticeship starts have risen for ethnic minorities and those with learning difficulties, much of their progress has been through reduced opportunities for others, laments Fiona Aldridge

Last week’s figures showing a decline in the number of apprenticeship starts continue to make headlines, both in and beyond the sector. Average monthly starts are currently 17 per cent lower than needed for the government to meet its commitment to three million apprenticeship starts by 2020.

Opinion is divided as to whether this is a temporary blip caused by the levy, or something more serious. But certainly if numbers do not recover soon, the government will quickly fall behind.

At Learning and Work Institute, our work on apprenticeships has focused on two key issues: quality and access. While supportive of the government’s ambitions for growth, we have continually argued that apprenticeships must be of high quality if they are to bring genuine skills improvements and productivity benefits. Like all other forms of education and training, they should be accessible for all who can benefit.

There are significant inequalities in access to apprenticeships

This is not currently the case – there are significant inequalities in access to apprenticeships by household income, ethnicity, gender, disability and caring responsibilities. Equality of access is not just a “nice-to-have”. This under-representation reinforces inequality, restricts opportunities and limits the talent pool available to employers.

L&W has been working closely with the government to address inequalities in access, particularly with its commitments to increase black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) participation by 20 per cent, to reach 11.9 per cent by 2020, and to increase the proportion of apprentices with learning difficulties and disabilities by 20 per cent, to reach 11.9 per cent by 2020.

So the apprenticeship starts figures published last week are particularly interesting. The data shows a small increase in BAME starts since 2015/16 – around 1,500 or three per cent. In the context of an overall decline in numbers however, this increase is set against 18,230 fewer white starts, a four-per-cent decrease from the previous year. While it is good that ethnic minorities are getting a fairer share of the opportunities, much of the progress has been through reduced opportunities for others.

In a similar vein, in 2016/17 the proportion of apprentices declaring a learning difficulty or disability (LDD) has increased from 9.9 per cent to 10.3 per cent, an apparently positive move.

The actual number of starts however has fallen by 170, with the percentage increase deriving from the 16,1780 fewer starts by those without LDD. Again, while it is positive news that those with learning difficulties and disabilities are gaining greater access to the opportunities on offer, this should not mask the fact that there have been far fewer actual opportunities.

The demographic data throws up other important patterns. Despite an overall decline in opportunities, more 25- to 59-year-olds started an apprenticeship than in the previous year, at the expense of a much more severe decline for younger adults.

It is too early to tell the extent to which these patterns are temporary, or a sign of things to come. While I am pleased to see that ethnic minorities and those with learning difficulties are better represented within the apprenticeship start data, it must be of concern that this sits alongside fewer opportunities for the young, for white applicants and for men.

This week’s ‘state of the nation’ report from the Social Mobility Commission warned that “the UK is in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever growing division” and suggested that unless we collaborate to ensure opportunity for all, then apprenticeships risk damaging rather than enhancing social mobility.

It is critical therefore that we work together to ensure that apprenticeships provide high quality opportunities for all who could benefit – younger and older, BAME and white, with or without learning disabilities, younger and older, men and women. Or else we yet again risk hitting our targets and missing the point.

Fiona Aldridge is assistant director of research and development at the Learning and Work Institute