Last week, the DfE published its latest statistics on the number of apprenticeships being started. These fell by 69 per cent between 2015/16 and 2021/22, primarily due to reforms to the apprenticeship system coupled with disruption created by the Covid pandemic. So what does the latest data tell us about the extent of the recovery?
A bumpy ride
The Government introduced a raft of reforms to the apprenticeship system in the past decade. These were aimed at addressing concerns about the quality, length and content of apprenticeships and were intended to improve their responsiveness to employer needs.
However, NFER research has shown that these reforms have had a substantial impact on the number of apprenticeships being started, particularly among young people.
We know from tracking the data that total new apprenticeships starts fell from 509,000 in 2015/16 to 393,000 in 2018/19. They then fell further to around 320,000 over the following two years, primarily due to the pandemic, before recovering in 2021/22 to 349,000.
We also know that this overall trend masks substantial differences between apprenticeship levels. The pattern for intermediate (Level 2) and advanced (Level 3) apprenticeships starts have the same downward trend as for total starts. Meanwhile, higher (Level 4+) apprenticeships have grown sharply. There are almost four times as many higher apprenticeship starts than in 2015/16, albeit from a low base, and they have now surpassed intermediate starts.
A post-pandemic bounce-back?
In short, the initial evidence from DfE’s recent statistics is that the post-pandemic rebound has not been sustained. These statistics, which provide data about apprenticeship starts during the first quarter of the 2022/23 academic year (for August-October 2022, so not full-year figures), show total starts were down by 6.1 per cent compared to the same period in the previous year.
This may be a temporary blip as starts could pick up in the remaining quarters. However, one possible reason for the decline is the withdrawal of the £3,000 incentive payment scheme in March 2022 that the government had introduced during the pandemic to encourage employers to take on new apprentices.
The recent statistics also show starts vary significantly by type of apprenticeship. After strongly bouncing back post-Covid, intermediate apprenticeship starts have been worst affected, falling by nearly one-fifth (18.4 per cent) from Q1 of 2021/22 and Q1 of 2022/23. Advanced apprenticeships are also down by nearly one-tenth (9.2 per cent) over the same time period. However, higher level start numbers march on, increasing by 10 per cent across the time period.
This data therefore suggests that apprenticeship starts are returning to the long-term trends seen before the post-pandemic bounce-back, with intermediate and advanced apprenticeship starts continuing their decline while higher level apprenticeships flourish.
As highlighted in previous NFER research, the reasons for this are complex and multi-faceted. Potential solutions include looking at the current funding system, the qualification offering at intermediate level and improving access to apprenticeships.
Apprenticeship starts by age
With regard to longer-term trends in apprenticeship starts by age, we find that all age groups broadly follow the same decline trend described above for total apprenticeship starts. Among them, under 19s have been particularly affected, falling to half the level of 2015/16 starts in 2020/21, before recovering slightly.
Looking at DfE’s most recent statistics, these show that starts for the 19- to 24-year-old group has fallen sharply by 11.4 per cent between Q1 of 2021/22 and the same point this year. Conversely, starts for under 19s have dropped by 4.1 per cent while starts for the 25+ group fell by 3.5 per cent.
As apprenticeships take centre stage in the government’s strategy to upskill and reskill the workforce to meet skills shortages, these new statistics serve as a reminder that improvements are urgently required. This is particularly the case for the recruitment of under 19s onto intermediate and advanced apprenticeships, to ensure that there is a clear and effective pathway for young people to progress into higher-level training or employment.