Shock as half of apprentices drop out

Expert says there would be 'national outcry' and independent inquiry if this happened with A-levels

Expert says there would be 'national outcry' and independent inquiry if this happened with A-levels

Nearly half of all apprentices dropped out last year, new government data has revealed.   

And revised figures for the year before show the drop-out rate has shot up by a huge amount for 2019/20 after officials fixed an “error” in their original calculations.   

Experts have expressed “deep concern” at the high drop-out rate, which one says would result in a “national outcry” and calls for an independent inquiry if it happened with A-levels.   

The government has admitted that “more needs to be done” as it investigates the reasons behind the issue for apprenticeships.   

National achievement rate tables (NARTs), which show how many apprentices passed, achieved and stayed on to complete their apprenticeship, were published on Thursday morning for the 2020/21 academic year by the Department for Education.   

Also published yesterday were revised NARTs for 2019/20. Original figures for that year were published in March 2021 but had to be removed and recalculated when DfE officials identified a blunder.   

The data includes a breakdown of the figures for those on the government’s new-style apprenticeship “standards”, which are designed to be tougher and of higher quality than the old-style “frameworks” which are being phased out.   

Included is a “retention rate”, which showed that only 53 per cent of apprentices on standards stayed on their programme until their end-point assessment in 2020/21 – meaning that 47 per cent dropped out.   

The drop-out rate for frameworks was 17 percentage points lower than standards in 2020/21.   

The figure was even worse in 2019/20: original data said the retention rate for standards that year was 60.2 per cent, but this has now been revised down to 46.6 per cent – resulting in a 53.4 per cent drop-out rate. In 2019/20 the revised drop-out rate for frameworks was 22.6 percentage points lower.   

The overall drop-out rate for apprenticeships was 41.3 per cent in 2019/20 and 41.2 per cent in 2020/21. 

By comparison, latest DfE data shows the drop-out rate for A-levels in 2019 was less than one in ten (8.7 per cent).   

There are increasing numbers of apprentices taking the government’s new-style standards, which makes the high drop-out rate all the more concerning.   

In 2018/19 the proportion of apprentices on standards stood at 18.5 per cent. In 2019/20 that proportion had increased to 46.3 per cent and for 2020/21 the proportion had reached 65.9 per cent.   

Former skills minister Gillian Keegan ordered an investigation into the “astonishingly” high drop-out rate for apprenticeship last year after the fudged 2019/20 figures were published.   

Asked for a response to Thursday’s revised figures and those for 2020/21, a DfE spokesperson said: “Covid-19 had a big impact on achievement rates in 19/20 but even in normal years there are many reasons why people move on from apprenticeships, such as changes in family circumstances or getting a promotion.   

“We have replaced the old style ‘frameworks’ with high-quality ‘standards’ that better reflect employer needs. Standards are rightly more difficult to achieve than frameworks, so lower rates on standards are not unexpected.”   

The spokesperson added that the department is aware that “more needs to be done to ensure as many people as possible complete their apprenticeship when that’s right for them”.   

Speaking to FE Week in February, the DfE’s joint minister for FE and HE Michelle Donelan said another reason for drop-outs is because some apprentices achieve professional qualifications to start a job and are offered employment before they sit their end-point assessment. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education is now looking to align to apprentices’ final assessments with professional qualifications to remove this incentive to leave early, she said.   

But Donelan insisted there is “no one reason” for the issue.   

Tom Richmond, a former adviser to two skills ministers and now director of think tank EDSK, was shocked by the figures.   

“If half of A-level students were dropping out of their courses before taking their final exams, there would be a national outcry and calls for an independent inquiry,” he said.   

“We should be equally concerned by these new figures on apprenticeships, as they suggest that there could be some fundamental problems with the delivery of apprenticeship standards.”   

Simon Ashworth, director of policy at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said his membership body is “deeply concerned at the high drop-out rate for apprenticeship standards”.   

He told FE Week that although the employer cash incentives for hiring apprentices “successfully” boosted starts, he claimed “Covid-related disruption” has now impacted the numbers completing their apprenticeship.

Yesterday’s data shows the overall achievement rate for all apprenticeships hit 57.7 per cent in 2020/21.   

This was a slight increase on the achievement rate for 2019/20 which now stands at 57.5 per cent after being originally stated as 64.2 per cent before the DfE’s recalculation.   

For 2020/21 the achievement rate on standards was just 51.8 per cent, while in 2019/20 it was 45.2 per cent.   

The St Martin’s Group, which comprises some of the country’s largest apprenticeship training providers and employers, warned that the data could deter people and businesses from starting an apprenticeship.   

A spokesperson said: “Thursday’s achievement rates will not surprise many in the sector as they have been significantly affected by Covid and by people leaving and moving jobs, especially in longer apprenticeship standards.   

“Unfortunately, these rates could negatively impact the perception of apprenticeships, making it more challenging to attract prospective apprentices and increase the number of businesses offering them.”   

Provider-level achievement rates have not been included due to the disruption caused by the pandemic. But they will be shared with Ofsted.   

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, told FE Week’s Annual Apprenticeship Conference last week that low achievement rates on their own will not result in lower inspection grades. 

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  1. Shock? – Really?
    Disappointment – without a doubt – but everyone on the front line of delivery has been waiting for this to be made public.
    The past two years have been unprecedented & everyone I’ve spoken to has been working extremely hard to minimise the impact of the pandemic on their apprentices & the companies they work for.
    We’ve experienced the furlough, redundancy, people returning to their home country, additional work & extra shifts in the workplace, sickness, death & not forgetting the mental toil on people stemming from all the above.
    The publication of this data that sits squarely in the periods of lockdown & global restrictions should not be used as a big stick to beat the sector with.
    This isn’t a national scandal that warrants an investigation & rolling heads. It’s a national tragedy that should be reviewed, learned from with support & challenge provided to help rebuild a fantastic skills programme that was being applauded prior to the pandemic.

    • Totally agree, it is as if they were not aware of the lockdown and the issues that it brought. A review is required but penalising providers will be the outcome. As always it will be the independent Private Training Providers that will bare the brunt of this and most will struggle to survive.

  2. Is it really fair to compare apprenticeships to A levels? No.

    An apprenticeship is a job and the pandemic had a huge impact on employment as we all know.

    If an A level student loses their paper round, it doesn’t mean they fail their A levels!

    Perhaps a real issue to investigate would be fire and rehire, especially if the rehire bit resulted in an incentive payment…

    • I agree, also A level students are not leaving a job to earn a few quid more down the road as they cant afford to live on an Apprenticeship wage (or minimum wage) at this tough time.

      Or is counted as a leaver if they move employer and don’t fulfil certain criteria.
      And of course if you make Apprenticeships tougher (the point of standards) less people will complete them, surely.

  3. A lot of apprentices, who complete the on programme part of their apprenticeship, do not pass their end point assessment because the EPAO cannot make contact with the employer or apprentice and it goes down as a fail. That needs investigating.

  4. Daniel Blaszczyk

    There are many reasons for this, from lockdown to delivery models. One area that should be a cause for concern is safeguarding. An employer takes on an apprentice and signs all agreements. They carry the costs of setting up the apprentice. The apprentice works for a while whilst the employer, bearing the costs of admin, PPE and generally teaching the apprentice, has delays in receiving his grant. Suddenly a safeguarding concern arises, the contract is cancelled, 500 pounds is issued by the college and the apprentice is no longer working for the employer. All rules regarding notice periods and such are set aside. No explanations are provided. Following that, a sub-contractor that works for the main employer is approached to take the apprentice on. Contact is still made with the original employer, but only 500 pounds have been paid. The new employer is not entitled to anything. Is this fair? What money then goes into college funds? So many questions but no answers. How many times has this happened, particularly where a sub-contractor is not available to provide employment?

  5. Rob Smith

    For so many reasons this isn’t a shock and sadly I believe this trend will continue…..the lack of any thought going into evidence requirements for Standards beggars belief, particularly when you become aware of members of Trailblazer groups who are unable to start apprentices due to the evidence requirement?!

  6. Phil Hatton

    The good news is that the achievement rates are not as bad as they might have been during lockdowns and shutdowns of many employers. As usual remarks about A levels display a lack of understanding about what has been going on with the gold standard – AS levels as an indicator of future success being such an achievement disaster that they have stopped being offered. No indicators for school pupils dropping from four to three or even two A levels or changing to less demanding subjects. Generous coursework having previously inflated grades and being able to chose softer exam boards for particular subjects. Have A levels maintained their quality over the last 10 years? If they have why do employers ask me how recruits with A levels in English and maths cannot write a basic business letter or add up in their heads? Standards-based apprenticeships have required a major upskilling of delivery staff to ‘teaching’ rather than ‘assessment’ – hard enough in normal times let alone lockdowns. Things will improve but their may be a negative impact of recruitment incentives of apprentices where employers were more interested in the cash than the training of new employees over the next year or more.

  7. Has the pressure to spend levy pots been considered? Employers may put forward apprentices that are not wholeheartedly committed to the programme, and then they leave the programme (or even their work role) before the end of their programme.
    It’s got to be a multitude of factors, but one things for certain… OTJT is not always provided as required, leading to an unhealthy work/life/study balance.