Colleges and training providers who “rigidly” demand higher grade GCSEs for the most basic of apprenticeships have come in for criticism from government vocational training adviser Professor Alison Wolf.

An apparently growing number of adverts for intermediate apprenticeships are asking for maths and English GCSEs of at least grade C or D, FE Week research has found.

The restrictions would have closed the door on career opportunities for the 40 per cent (249,164) of 2011/12’s GCSE cohort who failed to achieve A*-C in English and maths.

Professor Wolf, author of a landmark independent government review of 14 to 19 vocational education in 2011, called on providers to take a broader view of applicants’ abilities.

The King’s College London academic told FE Week: “Maths and English are enormously important to people’s lives and prospects, but of course are not the only things that matter. In selecting young people for increasingly popular apprenticeship places, it is surely crucial to look at all the relevant skills and experience each applicant can offer, not use just one or two criteria as a rigidly applied filter.”

Sector standards setting bodies and the Skills Funding Agency impose no such GCSE requirement for apprenticeships.

However, by law all intermediate apprenticeship frameworks require that learners without level one (equivalent to GCSE grade D to G) maths and English pass them during the course, typically as functional skills qualifications.

Roger Francis, business development director at functional skills specialist Creative Learning Partners Ltd, said he was “very concerned about what appears to be a growing trend”.

“Young people who desperately need this type of opportunity are being excluded,” he said.

“For a qualification designed to encourage diversity and inclusivity, this is very disturbing.”

He added: “I can’t help but feel some providers may be going down this path to avoid delivering functional skills which they find challenging and financially unrewarding.

“It would be tragic if learners were missing out on the opportunity to raise their skill levels… simply because a number of providers were unable to find a successful delivery model.”

Former Dragons’ Den investor Doug Richard proposed an A*-C grade GCSE requirement (or equivalent level two), in his independent review of apprenticeships last year, but said it should be needed in order to pass the apprenticeship. However, he also warned there was a risk “some employers or providers will ‘cherry pick’ those learners who already have level two”.

He added: “We must make sure that training in maths and English continue to be free and easily available.”

Westminster Kingsway College and Intraining, owned by NCG (formerly Newcastle College Group), have several roles with the A*-C GCSE requirement on the National  Apprenticeship Vacancy Matching Service, but said this was due to employer expectations.

However, FE Week has found several examples where it appears the requirement came from the provider.

Sheffield College and College of North West London require grade D maths and English within their published progression policy for apprenticeships.

Sheffield College described its entry requirements as “a general guide”.

The College of North West London said: “We do not generally enrol people onto apprenticeships without at least a GCSE grade D in maths and English… as our experience shows [these] apprentices are far less likely to succeed.”


Editorial: Questionable barriers

It did not take long searching the government’s apprenticeship vacancy website before I found numerous adverts for level two frameworks with A* to C GCSE English and maths requirements.

The adverts range from a high street bank and supermarket to local cafes and even colleges employing their own apprentices.

In fact, at the time of checking there were 64 level two retail apprenticeship adverts with this criteria alone.

I was both surprised and shocked.

Some colleges have defended the practice, saying ultimately they will support all young people in need.

But with these barriers, and therefore no application possible, who would they have to support?

And worst case scenario, the young person is left believing this is a national requirement so does not look for an alternative provider.

Just yesterday one young person tweeted: “I want an apprenticeship but you need English and maths so slight problem.”

This tweet brings home the fact there are young people being excluded from gaining work and training, for being underqualified.

Imagine yourself as a young person in that trap.

You can’t get onto an apprenticeship to learn and gain qualifications without already having achieved them.

Before this becomes an even bigger problem perhaps the sector standards setting bodies need to determine not only the framework contents, but also restrict the use of inappropriate pre-entry requirements?

Nick Linford, editor of FE Week


Listen to the recording of Nick Linford and Doug Richard being interview on BBC Radio 4 Today programme at 6:50am on September 6, 2013

[soundcloud url=”″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

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  1. Mick Fletcher

    There are interesting implication of the concerns expressed here (with which I agree). The principal one is that to talk of apprenticeships as an employer led programme is a dangerous oversimplification and potential distortion. There is nothing wrong with employers wanting to pick the best person for the job; and if its true that English & Maths are highly sought after skills its neither surprising nor wrong that in an employer led system they should prioritise people who have them.
    The fact is however that the public and government want apprenticeships more badly than employers do and want things from them that employers don’t necessarily want. Furthermore since it is government that pays most for apprenticeships (for young people at least) that makes them the customer and customers we are told should be king. Employers are actually PROVIDERS of apprenticeships so its quite right that the customer should make its expectations clear – and that includes giving all young people a chance to enter the labour market.

  2. This is about managing Learner expectation as well though, isn’t it? If someone turns up and doesn’t have the current skills to do course X we should have course Y to improve their skills to enable them to get to course X, shouldn’t we?

    Isn’t this basically what traineeships are for? Preparing learners without the skills so they can go on and succeed on an apprenticeship?

  3. Those of us who have knocked around the FE system for a while might see a depressing parallel with the early-mid 90s when the sector was hit by scandals around outcome funded skills training. WBL providers (and some FE colleges acting in that role)restricted recruitment to ‘trainees’ whose skills levels already matched the target outcomes. In consequence funds intended for training and assessment were used just for recruitment and assessment.

    As Mick remarks the taxpayer is committing funds here for outcomes of public worth. If the employer/provider is achieving only private worth (the employers and, perhaps, the apprentice to a limited extent), then why is the taxpayer spending anything? Or have I misunderstood the whole thing and the scheme is actually an employment subsidy programme in which employers masquerading as trainers are paid to recruit young(ish) people? If it’s one of these, can I suggest that London and the Home Counties should be made ineligible but it would probably be a valuable service in the North East and West.

  4. I am not convinced that the demand for GCSE’s is coming from employers. We work with large commercial organisations who place no such restrictions on would-be Apprentices.

    On the contrary, many of them now prefer Functional Skills to the equivalent GCSE. The latter are academic qualifications which are taught in a way that is designed to get students through an exam (sadly because that seems to be the key way in which we measure school performance). Functional Skills, on the other hand enable learners to apply their knowledge to a variety of real workplace situations and to understand how they can adapt it to new situations which they might meet in the future. As such it is far more relevant as a real vocational qualification and of far more value both to the learner and the employee.

    So I repeat that I believe that putting these new restrictions down to “employer expectations” is a smokescreen designed to disguise the unwillingness of certain providers to deliver Functional Skills and instead focus on the more profitable components of the framework.

  5. Gill Mason

    Lets be honest here ..we are a training provider and are thrilled if a learner /apprentice joining us has GCSE or equivalent thus enabling our small team of vocational experts to focus on the vocational aspect of delivery, saving time and money because many of our learners find functional skills really difficult…however we would NEVER turn a learner away if they did not have GCSEs, what message would this send out…providers asking for this are doing it to cherry pick and save money

  6. Peter Cobrin

    I remember Graham Hoyle proposing that the cost to a college or training provider of delivering the two GCCEs (or equivalent) should be clawed back from the school that had self evidently failed that young person. Instead we pay twice!!!

  7. David Yeomans

    I remember back in the 1980s young people who couldn’t get onto A-level or other courses we now call level 3 were often directed towards GCE O-level re-sits patched together with a few other flimsy curricular elements. The results of these O-level re-sits were very often poor. Plenty got worse results on the re-sits than they did first time around! In this rush to promote the achievement by all of GCSE English and Maths A* – C are we sure we know how we are going to avoid similar outcomes this time?

  8. Darrell Bate

    It seems apprenticeships are becoming a victim of their own success. As supply way outstrips demand (e.g. 6 applicants for every plumbing apprenticeship)employers and/or providers can inevitably raise the entry bar as they have that luxury. No-one has mentioned though, the element of funding that cannot then be claimed for not delivering those components so this practice has to be weighed against achieving contract values.

  9. Beverley Slynn

    Oh to have the choice of turning prospective apprentices away….. If at initial assessment they are really not up to it then we would suggest another route, but approx 30% of our apprentices do not have a transferable English or Maths qualification and we deliver functional skills to them. We are a small indpendent provider and all delivery is in the work place, so delivering 1:2:1 for the small funding we receive is not easy. I would also suggest that Functional Skills are a much better fit than GCSE’s in many working environments, but that more sector specific Functional Skills would be more useful.

  10. Is this so the providers (Colleges in the main) can avoid having to teach English and maths, specifically Functional Skills? Forgive me, but surely, this is one of the main purposes of 16+ Learning Providers?

    If providers are allowed to sidestep this requirement and cherry pick the students they want to teach, presumeably because it takes less time, pass rates are better and therefore they get more money for doing less, then we’ll be faced with an even bigger and ever growing problem of NEETS.

    Carrying this policy forward, it will mean that far from RPA being raised to 17 then 18 as an inclusive measure and ALL 17 and 18 years olds continuing to study Maths and English, it will go the other way – ONLY those with GCSE A*-C at age 16 will be able to take part in further education because those without this will be rejected at the application stage.

  11. Yes I agree this is a big problem and not one that is being driven by employers. In fact they are not that bothered if the applicant has English and Maths if they feel that they have the right skills to do the job. It is the apprenticeship frameworks and contract rules that are pushing training providers to be selective on recruiting apprentices with Maths and English as they only have 1 year to get them to either level 1 or 2 standard. If the employer could have a choice whether to take up the full apprenticeship framework or just work with the main aim and key components with funding I can see that this would be popular. If the applicant wants to continue with Maths and English they can draw down separate funding and do this at a slower pace in order to get it achieved. This may mean going back to Train to Gain times which I felt gave the employer what they wanted.

  12. This is all very interesting. We now have a specification for apprenticeship frameworks which clearly requires a level of competence in English Maths and ICT. To complete a level 3 framework we need learners to get through or have the equivalent level 2 skills in English Maths and ICT. In many cases this is very difficult to achieve in the apprenticeship period. If the schools have had 11 years to get the learners to at least level 1-2 we often only have between 12-14 months!
    As providers we all hate to turn anyone away from an apprenticeship opportunity where it arises, but the employers are driving the standard and will normally go for a candidate with the better GCSE’s given the choice. Many apprenticeships such as the ones we deliver require very technical input and detailed reading and understanding. This forces employers in many cases to choose high calibre applicants unfortunately.

  13. Jill Baggaley

    Working in the engineering sector where recruitment is led by engineering teams who have some control over recruitment there tends to be a broader focus on other skills and attributes such as motor skills, spatial awareness, team working, attitudes and behaviours and less on using a very narrow measure of GCSE results. However when HR departments get involved there is often an internal tension where the focus is to filter on GCSE outcomes. If employers follow the same route as our HE colleagues and rely solely on such a narrow measure of potential we all know where that leads, ever increasing grade requirements, further grade chasing in schools and more talented youngsters excluded from opportunities that they deserve to have.

  14. The later contributors to this discussion seemed generally to be pointing out that a) employers are not that bothered about apprentices having GCSE English and Maths and b) the inclusion of these quals in the requirements is a big challenge to providers because of the short timeframe in which they have to be achieved (alongside all the more vocational skills also in the programme).

    I don’t have trouble believing that employers are largely indifferent to these quals but, as Mick pointed out at the beginning of this thread, these are public funds being provided to employers as training PROVIDERS so what they want or would prioritise is not really the central issue. The inclusion of the English and Maths requirement stems from a) RPA, b) the Wolf report and c) the widely held (and quite well evidenced) view that English and Maths at Level 3 are a crucial determinant of future success at work and in life.

    I don’t claim to understand the current funding rules (even though, in a previous existence, I wrote some of them) so I may not be recognising the restraints of funding. But good (in the Ofsted sense) or better schools get 85-90% of all students through GCSE English and 70+% through ditto maths. Not very long ago this wasn’t true so schools have raised their game a lot in the recent past – largely by getting a better grip on teaching and learning and through good CPD. Colleges (and to an even greater extent training providers) have been behind the curve and will need do some rapid catching up. They can do it and, in my view, have a moral and social duty to do so. I still hear FE and skills people banging on about how they offer ‘second chances’ to youngsters failed by the school system. They did and do and this is the right moral high ground to occupy – but you can’t do that if you are shutting out the very young people who need that chance

    [Turns preachy mode off]

  15. Jim Maguire

    Apprenticeships should not be seen as a “catch all” qualification, but as a qualification that the majority of young people see as something worthwhile and aspire to.

    If prospective foundation level apprentices do not have at least an entry level 3, or equivalent, in maths and/or English, then they should be offered a pre-apprenticeship (traineeship). My experience has shown that this gives the learner the motivation to improve their maths and English skills, that may have been lacking during their school years, and allows them to develop their maths and English skills over a longer time frame than that dictated by the apprenticeship frameworks.

    Unfortunately, the major problems arise when an employer employs an apprentice without first ascertaining what their level of maths and English ability actually is. In effect, setting them up to fail.

  16. A lot of natural talent is lost by pushing all students to be academic.
    Would Rod Stuart be told he can’t have a career in teaching music because he has not the GCSE results needed?

    Would Vincent Van Gogh be told he can’t teach painting because he has not his Maths GCSE?

    Has the world gone made!

    What has happened to common sense.

    I left a bad school at 16 years old and loved Hairdressing. My passion completely I ran a very successful salon then married and had children . At the age of 48 I would like to teach others how great my career can be. Only to be told no you need GCSE and your not Evan qualified to do that !

    Oh well, I am gutted but that’s the world we live in. I hope all kids have loving parents that help them study and your home is not a broken home and they have a good school otherwise you’ll be living of the state. Talented or not.!

  17. Emma Page

    My 17 year old son feels like he has failed. He is however talented in construction and wants so badly to work. Yet he is rejected when applying for apprenticeships because he doesn’t have a high enough Maths and English GCSE grade. He is slowly losing confidence even though we are supporting him and encouraging him. He has completed Level 1 in Electrics but has been refused a place at the same college to continue his studies because he cannot secure an apprenticeship with his current GSCE grades. He re-sat his English GCSE this month and we hope he will achieve higher than the D grade he already has. He passed his functional skills Maths and was hoping to study for his GCSE next year but this offer is only available with an apprenticeship in place. He is hard working and has managed to fit a lot of ad hoc work around his full time course. The feedback has been that he is a very good worker and because he has great communication skills, an eagerness to learn he has been offered plenty of work. However this small one man businesses are not able or do not provide apprenticeships. Its very worrying indeed…our son is losing faith and motivation, surely this is not how we should be making our young people feel? they are the workers and prospective tax payers of the future, but this is making them feel very invalid in todays society. Not everyone is academic. One more year and these kids will be voting. Maybe then someone will listen.