The issue facing aspiring apprentices will be even more pressing if BTECs are defunded, writes Henry Faulkner-Ellis
Imagine a school leaver has just completed their GCSEs and wants to get on to an apprenticeship scheme. They search through the vacancies online but find that almost every advert asks for qualifications they don’t have.
This is currently the case for a significant number of young people.
To address this issue, the government needs to re-assess how minimum English and maths requirements are incorporated into apprenticeship training.
The government must consider how they can better support employers in taking on apprentices who do not meet them.
In 2014/15 the government made it mandatory for all apprentices to continue studying towards a level 2 qualification in English and maths (e.g. achieving a minimum GCSE grade of 4), where an apprentice did not already meet this requirement.
While this was intended to ensure apprenticeships were preparing individuals for the labour market, the extra requirements created disincentives for employers and providers to take on apprentices who did not already meet minimum requirements.
Both providers and employers have reported filtering out candidates without minimum English and maths requirements, as these candidates are seen to be less likely to pass the end-point assessment.
Only half of all young people from disadvantaged backgrounds (as measured by eligibility for free school meals) achieved a grade 9-4 in English and maths at key stage 4 in the last academic year.
Because of this low rate, the requirement to continue studying towards level 2 qualifications in English and maths may have contributed to the particular decline in apprenticeship starts among disadvantaged young people, as highlighted in our recent NFER research report.
But until now it has not been possible to assess how widespread minimum English and maths requirements are.
For the first time, the DfE has published detailed vacancy information from its Find An Apprenticeship (FAA) service, where employers can advertise apprenticeship vacancies.
While the platform only includes a subset of all apprenticeship opportunities, it still provides the most comprehensive picture yet of apprenticeship entry requirements.
Our analysis finds that almost 80 per cent of all apprenticeship vacancies advertised on the FAA website between August 2018 and October 2021 mention English or maths as qualifications required to fill the vacancy.
While this percentage increases with the level associated with the apprenticeship, we still find that 71 per cent of intermediate apprenticeships (level 2) mention English or maths in their qualification requirements.
Considering only half of disadvantaged young people achieve these qualifications at KS4, these requirements are a significant obstacle to having more disadvantaged young people doing apprenticeships.
While some apprenticeships require high levels of English and maths skills, there are apprenticeships where only some aspects of these skills might be required. For example, a social care apprentice is unlikely to require the same levels of numerical skills as an engineering apprentice.
Despite this, we find that the majority of vacancies across all sectors mention English or maths requirements – even in the sectors where an apprentice might not necessarily need to meet minimum requirements at the start of their apprenticeship.
This suggests that employers are imposing minimum requirements because of how the system is designed, and not because they are a prerequisite for the actual apprenticeship.
These are not prerequisites for the actual apprenticeship
While there is no doubt that numeracy and literacy are important for young people to succeed in the labour market, it is clear that the current minimum requirements act as a barrier to young people accessing apprenticeships. This is particularly important as these young people will be even more restricted in their options if plans to de-fund some BTECs go ahead in 2024.
To ensure that all young people are able to access a suitable route at post-16, the government needs to re-assess how English and maths requirements are incorporated into apprenticeships.
They should also consider how they can better support and incentivise employers to take on apprentices who do not meet minimum requirements before starting their apprenticeships.