Four in five apprentices studying at a level they already have

Four out of five people doing level two and three apprenticeships are on a level they have already studied at, according to a worrying new report.

The figure cropped up in an investigation into the prior qualifications of adult apprentices in 2013/14, which was published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

Eighty per cent (140,100 out of 175,400) of adults on level two apprenticeships apparently already had qualifications at that level, analysis by FE Week has demonstrated — a higher proportion than at any other time over the last five years.


Peter Kyle (pictured), a prominent and outspoken member of the Business, Innovation and Skills select committee described the figures as “deeply concerning”.

The MP for Hove said: “At a time when the government is looking for three million people to start apprenticeships over the course of this parliament, all efforts should be put into ensuring these are at a level higher than their previous qualifications wherever possible.

“If not, it is hard to see how exactly the proposed expansion of apprenticeship numbers will help close the skills gaps within our economy and contribute to improving the nation’s productivity.”

Peter Kyle
Peter Kyle

The report, which used interviews with 3,500 apprentices studying in 2013/14, was based on the sixth annual survey into the previous attainment level of adult apprentices.

In 2012/13, 79 per cent of adults taking a level two apprenticeship were found not to be taking their first qualification at the same level — compared with 72 per cent in 2011/12, 78 per cent the year before that year, and 75 per cent in 2009/10.

The proportion of adults on level three apprenticeships who already had a qualification of a similar level, was also up in 2013/14, to 56 per cent, compared with 53 per cent in 2012/13.

This figure stood at 50 per cent in 2011/12, 51 per cent in 2010/11, and 52 per cent in 2009/10.

A BIS spokesperson did not explain what plans, if any, the government had to address the issue of apprentices taking qualifications at levels they already possessed.

They said that apprenticeships “allow learners to develop specific work-based skills in a real job, adding to and enhancing previous qualifications such as GCSEs”, and that they “help people get on, help businesses to grow and benefit our economy”.

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  1. Graham Hoyle OBE

    The figures are entirely predictable! They demonstrate that for a huge proportion of the population level 2/3 apprenticeships are successfully providing a huge and highly ‘value-added’ element to the limited value academic qualifications that serve less than a half of all pupils well. The majority of young people need to move quickly into a mode of learning that prepares them, and is immediately relevant to/for, the world of work. A world they are about to spend 40-50 years in. Apprenticeships have always done just that. Our academically focussed education system has for far too long been designed by academics for those aspiring to HE. Apprenticeships – especially with the long overdue development of higher level apprenticeships – are now persuading (bright) young people to move quickly into relevant, practical skills training that will see them prosper flexibly during their work life.
    Despite a clutch of good GCSEs or A-levels, they are realising that apprenticeships represent the next positive step for them. This will continue until secondary (and to some extent, primary) education embrace the need to start developing the vocational route much earlier as the best preparation for work, for the majority.
    What is disappointing about the figures is that they show apprenticeships are not engaging anything like enough young people who have not gained the number of academic GCSEs still demanded by apprentice offering employers. This means that the less academically able are not entering the route many of them are best suited for, and for which many have more than sufficient latent potential. Given that they are not making a success of the academic route, what are they being constrained to do/be?
    That is the urgent question that needs to be addressed as part of both the social and skills shortage agendas

    • Well said. Let us also not forget that the job level often dictates the qualification. Too many people lack this basic understanding which is based upon the school and university progression route. Time and time again I visit schools who want their young people to start on higher level apprenticeships because that ties in with their understanding of progression; I then have to explain that would involve them running companies or large departments which is rather unlikely in the main. This also applies to adult learners who are working at one level and using the apprenticeship programme to progress to the next – Team Leader to Manager for example. Whilst there will be poor practice by some providers it is very dangerous to make assumptions based on a lack of real understanding.

  2. Norman

    So 5 GCSEs are a level 2 so are you saying these shouldn’t do apprenticeships. What’s your point here

    Ofsted expect more progression into apprenticeships and when they are not bayoneting maths and English teachers then they point out progression isn’t good enough. Again what’s your point

    If you are focussing on poor grades at AS which still count as a level 3 for those badly guided who then drop out to do an apprenticeship then fair play go for it

    Lazy journalism FE Week

    Why don’t you do a piece on those who drop out of 6th forms at age 17 now there’s a real topic if you want to take up the challenge. This is a national scandal under the radar but may involve a bit of work. Are you up to it

  3. Naomi Northey

    I agree that many apprentices start on the same level they have already attained but I agree the above comments, that often they have been badly prepared for work by their previous education, or the job role demands that they do a particular level. Just as an example a junior artworker could not do Level 3 in Design as it has project management, budget knowledge etc in it but they can progress to this level as their role grows. I do not see this as a worry because they way apprentices learn is completely different to the way they learn at school or college, picking up employability skills, learning to be responsible for their own actions etc. I also see the people being shepherded down the A’Level route then dropping out and coming to us at college to find something that they might actually enjoy doing. I see apprentices studying the same level twice as far less worrying than people spending 6 years at university getting to MA, PHD status and never getting any experience or indeed getting a job in their desired industry and running up massive debts which they will probably never pay back. Simply skewing unemployment statistics.

  4. There is a fundamental difference between skills development and the achievement of qualifications. It is largely through skills development that we will fill skills gaps. It is not uncommon for apprentices to be training at the same level or below their level of prior attainment. An apprentice may have good GCSEs (or dare I say O Levels) but know nothing about engineering and few companies that I know would take them on to a Level 3 engineering apprenticeship without a thorough grounding in engineering principles. The level of apprenticeship is also constrained by the job role and, as has already been stated, a person would often have to be supervising or running a department in order to fulfil the criteria for an apprenticeship at a higher level. Where apprenticeships are run well, the apprentices gain so much more from the apprenticeship than the achievement of qualifications. This cannot be easily quantified but is very apparent at an individual level. For those looking for their next scandal, look at graduate unemployment and then come back and argue that apprenticeships are not a good thing for the economy.

  5. Simon

    I think levels are purely arbitrary and as such who cares if they have already achieved a certain ‘level’ in a completely different field. It is skills acquired that are important. Trying to complete a higher level apprenticeship in a technical subject on the strength of scraping a C in your English A Level will not end well.

    Bit of a non story really. I wonder if the report draws the ‘worrying’ conclusion or whether it comes from a little journalistic license?