Jisc’s Paul Feldman argues that to boost completion rates, we first need to understand why apprentices are dropping out

The government’s desire to have three million people start apprenticeships by 2020, and its moves to widen access through last year’s careers strategy, are both steps in the right direction. These measures will feed into the government’s industrial strategy and its drive for social justice.

But the Skills Commission’s recent report into ‘Apprenticeships and social mobility’ have highlighted a few problems. More than 30 per cent of people who start apprenticeships in Britain do not complete them and, more worryingly, that situation is getting worse every year. The question is: why is this the case?

The commission noted that there is some evidence that young people from more affluent backgrounds, who have the social capital and credentials to navigate the skills system, are most likely to start higher-yield apprenticeships.

But the commission also recognises that more evidence is needed. One of the largest gaps in our knowledge is the lack of comprehensive data on the social backgrounds of people who are enrolling and then dropping out.

Improving employability and social mobility are two policies in which FE is expected to take a leading role

The commission recommends that data collection on social background and progression for apprenticeships should mirror that which already exists for – and benefits – HE and FE institutions, taking for example the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s outcome-based success measures data.

Learning analytics is another form of data that could be useful. Jisc’s work to develop access to learning analytics for higher and further education has shown that such data analysis can help improve retention rates.

For example, should a learner stop engaging with their virtual learning environment, a red flag is raised. Timely and appropriate interventions can then be made to support at-risk students to stay engaged with studying, which improves their experiences, their retention rates and their chances of a successful outcome.

In higher education, data has also been used predictively to identify any students who might be at risk of dropping out or not meeting their full academic potential.

We are looking at what we can do to adapt our system for apprenticeships. Indeed, it is our aim to enable data to be gathered from all stages of the apprenticeship journey, including attendance at training, progress, topic coverage, as well as data from systems such as student records, the VLE and e-portfolios.

We are already working with the Department for Education to use apprenticeships data, which has helped to confirm our belief that college providers need better information on which to base decision-making – especially if they are to help meet the government’s goals in the skills arena.

Indeed, improving employability and social mobility are two policies in which FE is expected to take a leading role.

At the moment, the government’s three million target, despite its ambition, doesn’t provide enough incentive to address the high non-continuation figures because it only measures starts.

In recent years, the HE sector has been encouraged to adopt a “student lifecycle” approach to access. In practice, this means that institutions must ensure that students from non-traditional backgrounds are successful following enrolment.

In HE, underrepresented groups are more likely to drop out of their studies than the general student population. If the data for apprenticeships shows the same trend, then we must consider adopting an “apprentice lifecycle” approach to improve progression.

But the first step is to get the data, which is why we support the commission’s call for the government to improve data collection for apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships benefit a range of individuals including those who find accessing the labour market difficult, from care-leavers to the long-term unemployed. If we can understand the needs of these learners we can help them to fulfil their ambitions and potential, creating millions of talented workers ready to plug the skills gap.

Paul Feldman is chief executive of Jisc