Some learners barred from apprenticeships are ending up on college courses for three years, write Stephanie Thomson and Lorna Unwin

As another academic year draws to a close, families, teachers and careers advisers will rally round to help 16 -year-olds find a place for September.

But while guarantees and entitlements are popular hurrah words for policymakers, the reality on the ground shows an uneven playing field when it comes to post-16 options.

A big issue, as FE Week recently reported, is that entry requirements for some apprenticeships at level 2 are surprisingly high. Some employers demand GCSE grades equal to or beyond those necessary for A-level or level 3 vocational courses.

We found similar evidence in our research for the Nuffield Foundation published in February. We looked at the 40 per cent of young people who annually miss the benchmark grades in maths and/or English.

Across our case study areas in Greater Manchester and North Tyne, we identified great variation in entry requirements for similar types of apprenticeship ̶ and requirements that did not always coincide with the level of the apprenticeship.

For example, 33 per cent of apprenticeships at level 2 specified English and maths GCSE at grade 4 or above as the only condition of entry. Yet the corresponding apprenticeship standard usually stated an apprentice would be expected to work towards these GCSE grades or functional skills during their training.

Like FE Week, we also found that apprenticeship adverts often use vague terminology stating that particular grades “would be an advantage” or were “desirable”, or that a “good standard” or “reasonable level” of English and maths was required.

Given the acute shortage of apprenticeships for young people, using maths and English GCSEs as the main sorting device risks closing down opportunities for many who are keen to show their potential through work-based learning.

In addition, adverts for apprenticeships are not always clear whether achievements in other GCSE subjects, vocational qualifications, work experience and volunteering will be considered.

Course entry requirements are more likely to do this, but there is considerable local variation even for courses at the same level.

Across England, we found that around 25 per cent of young people without English and/or maths GCSE at grade 4 had started their post-16 phase at level 1 or below, including learners with substantial level 2 achievements.

Starting levels can affect progress and outcomes. For example, of the learners who started at level 1, 53 per cent had achieved at least level 2 by age 18. Yet this figure rose to 85 per cent for those who started at level 2.

Some young people are spending three years in the post-16 phase when they don’t necessarily need to

Understanding more about why some learners with similar GCSE attainment are starting on different levels is important because this could be creating inequities.

It could also help explain why some young people are spending three years in the post-16 phase when they don’t necessarily need to. This an aspect of the system that needs to be better understood and more widely acknowledged.

Some of the young people we spoke to were frustrated by starting on a lower-level course. But it is easy to see why colleges and training providers do this.

Reasons include funding constraints, inadequate information about a learner’s pre-16 achievements, timetable pressures due to maths and English upgrading, and a perceived need to start some vocational courses at a basic level.

But is there room to be less risk averse? Could colleges pool experiences and examine data on prior attainment and achievements in different subjects to see if starting levels need adjusting?

Could IfATE fund some sector-based pilot initiatives so employers and providers could work together to overcome prohibitive apprenticeship entry requirements?

Our research and FE Week’s findings disrupt the notion that, just armed with the “right” information, young people can progress smoothly into post-16 pathways.

This summer’s Covid-affected GCSE results will create headlines about grade inflation and teacher-led assessment.

Whatever the results, how can we ensure entry to post-16 provision focuses on young people’s potential – rather than their “failure” in certain subjects?