The Department for Education will strengthen ethnic minority representation in campaign imagery and make use of “influencers” to tackle low numbers of diverse young people taking apprenticeships.
But experts have warned the action does not go far enough, with one group saying it is “simply bizarre” to think that racism and inequality will be fixed by just running a better advertising campaign.
The government included the commitments today in its response to the Sewell report on race and ethnic disparities, which was published last year and shone a spotlight on the low number of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) young people in apprenticeships.
The commission claimed that “prejudice and ignorance” within ethnic minority families led to a low take-up of apprenticeship starts in their communities.
FE Week analysis shows that ethnic minority 16-to-18-year-old apprentices made up 7.8 per cent of starts in 2018/19, 7.7 per cent in 2019/20, and 8.1 per cent in 2020/21. BAME people made up 14.3 per cent of apprenticeships starts for all ages in 2020/21.
The Office for National Statistics said in 2019, 84.8 per cent of people in England and Wales were white.
All three of the government actions pledged in the response to the apprenticeship concerns in Sewell’s report are based on previous announcements by ministers and focus on raising awareness of apprenticeships among ethnic minority communities – in line with what was recommended by the commission.
Since November 2021, for example, the DfE has worked with the Department for Work and Pensions to use a “range of mechanisms to attract more ethnic minority starts identified in the commission’s report, such as events in schools with strong minority representation, relatable role models, employer testimonies, data on potential earnings and career progression”.
The departments will also explore the impact of factors that influence a young person’s career choices, today’s response said.
And in January the DfE launched a “major” communications campaign Get the Jump: Skills for Life, which will target young people aged 14 to 19 about the full range of options available.
“It will help to tackle disparities by featuring a diverse range of young people in the campaign imagery, through case studies, influencers and through media targeting,” the government said, adding that the DfE will continue to measure and publish participation levels of people from ethnic minorities, including a breakdown by age.
Jeremy Crook, chief executive of Action for Race Equality (formerly known as the Black Training and Enterprise Group), said the real barrier to increasing BAME representation in apprenticeships is employers’ “poor recruitment practices, especially in the ICT, construction and engineering sectors”.
This was echoed by Imani Brown and Le’Shaé Woodstock from the National Society of Apprentices, who in a joint statement said “racism, endemic low pay in apprenticeships and a consistent base of bad employer behaviour around off-the-job training are simply ignored”.
The pair added: “It’s simply bizarre to think that racism and inequality will be fixed by just running a better advertising campaign. Where is the action on pay gaps, on what we learn and how we learn it?”
Under-representation of BAME people in apprenticeships is by no means a new revelation. But the DfE’s public attempts to redress low ethnic minority take-up haven’t gone well in the past.
Former education secretary Justine Greening was accused of being “all talk” in 2017 after telling the education select committee that the government had a “big focus” on encouraging “a higher proportion of BAME young people going into apprenticeships” with little to show for it.
Andy Forbes, a former college principal and now head of development at think tank ResPublica, said the biggest weakness in the DfE’s strategy is the lack of clear targets for recruitment of ethnic minority apprentices.
“In my view, there should be an overall target and targets for each occupational area and level, from intermediate to degree apprenticeships,” he told FE Week.
“The measurable progress of employers and training providers in attracting and recruiting ethnic minority applicants should be a factor in evaluating their quality in Ofsted reports and added in to the standard reporting of employers in relation to race pay gaps.”
Crook said that despite the Black Lives Matter protests, there are “still too many employers reluctant to address race equality in their companies.
“It’s time for the government to use its levers, such as public procurement, to increase the pace of change,” he added.