Evaluating Apprenticeships in England and Wales

There are currently around a million people doing Apprenticeships in England and Wales, and about one in seven of the current workforce is either doing one or has done one as part of their training, but how effective are apprenticeships today?

If it is possible to generalised, what are the strengths and limitations of modern apprenticeships?

Strengths of Apprenticeships

This 2021 government report on apprenticeships points to the fact that standards of apprenticeships have risen in recent years, with a new minimum length of training being one year, the increasing number of advanced apprenticeships, and more rigorous monitoring.

The public sector is also now heavily involved with apprenticeship training and there is a commitment to ensuring apprenticeships are supporting diversity and social mobility.

Interviews with small firms who have taken on apprentices recently point to a number of benefits of doing so such as:

  • Being able to meet increasing demand in a cost effective way. Apprentices can help to boos productivity.
  • Increasing diversity of skills and challenging set ways of thinking – apprentices with new skills and fresh ways of looking at things can establish new innovative ways of working and challenge the status quo in a company, keeping it dynamic.
  • Being able to mould future leaders of a company – some employers like taking on young apprentices especially as they can train them appropriately over a series of months and years to go into management positions.  

For many employers taking on new apprentices is going to for a key strategy of rebuilding after the pandemic. Apprenticeships are well suited to helping both businesses and individuals recruit and retrain after the disruption caused due the government imposed restrictions on work during the Pandemic.

Limitations of Apprenticeships

Some recent research by the London School of Economics suggests that apprenticeships are stalling –– the increasing of the minimum training time to one year is possibly linked to this, interestingly, the introduction of the Levy on employers in 2017 doesn’t seem to be correlated.

There has also been a shift towards apprenticeships being directed more towards the over 25s and away from the more disadvantaged, as the number of higher apprenticeships has increased compared to intermediate.

The report also notes that not all of the available funding (from the Levy) is used.

Some apprenticeships were also disproportionately affected by the government’s chosen response to the recent Pandemic – most notably those related to travel and hospitality, although that’s not a criticism of apprenticeships themselves as such, just something to be aware of! (some apprenticeships can’t work effectively when there’s a government imposed lockdown going on!

Trends in Apprenticeships England and Wales 2021

Apprenticeships are a form of Vocational Educational which have become increasingly popular over the last decade.

Although the number of people doing them has levelled out and declined slightly in recent years around one third of people engaged in Vocational Education in England today are doing an apprenticeship.  

In this post I simply summarise some of the recent trends in Apprenticeships in England and Wales to 2021.

Recent Trends in Apprenticeships

There were just over 250 000 Apprenticeship starts between August 2020 and April 2021, with 657 000 people doing apprenticeships and almost 100 000 people completed apprenticeships achieving a related qualification in the same period.

Taking the longer-term view, there have been almost 2.5 million apprenticeship starts since 2015, and almost 5 million since 2010.

Last year’s figures  are down slightly on the long term trend, which correlates to changes in funding introduced in 2017, although correlation may not mean causation. Some of the recent dip in starts can also be attributed to the Pandemic (like short term declines in many things!).

The number of higher apprenticeships has grown in the last 3 years compared to intermediate apprenticeships. Today, approximately 30% of apprenticeships are advanced, with 20% being intermediate and 20% higher.

Of the apprenticeship starts in the last year –

  • 53000 were aged under 19
  • 74000 were aged 19 -24
  • 125000 were aged 25 and over.

So while you might think that apprenticeships are mainly for the young, half of them are undertaken by adults, presumably undergoing some kind of retraining.

The two main areas in which people do apprenticeships are in business and administration and  health and public services. The next larges category is Engineering, but this is a long way behind the first two….  

Analysis of these statistics

Apprenticeships now make up a significant part of the Vocational landscape, with 5 million people in the UK either doing or having done an apprenticeship, that is around 1 in 7 of the UK Workforce!

The fact that the numbers of apprenticeships is levelling out is probably due to their having reached saturation point – they couldn’t keep on growing forever – eventually the numbers have to plateau because the workforce isn’t constantly increasing, thus you wouldn’t expect the numbers of apprenticeships to increase forever either.

The fact that half of all apprenticeships are taken up by over 25 year olds suggest they are playing a key role in helping people to retrain in later life and change careers. Maybe one of the functions of apprenticeships is that they help workers adapt to an ever-changing postmodern economy with its flexible labour market.  

Apprenticeships also seem to be growing in status, with an increase in the relative number of higher apprenticeships, which are degree level qualifications.

On the other hand, many apprenticeships are also in low-skilled work such as the care sector.

One possible criticisms of the apprenticeship landscape is that there isn’t a huge amount of diversity – the majority of them are in business and administration and public sector/ care work.

But at the end of the day, whatever we think about Apprenticeships they are probably here to stay!

Apprenticeships: find out more

These are the latest apprenticeship statistics

This is a nice data visualisation tool on apprenticeships which will make exploring them further much more fun!

The New T Levels

T Levels are vocational A-levels for 16-19 year olds focussed on general career areas. They run over two years and are mainly taught in colleges and including 45 days on the job training.

They have been developed in collaboration with businesses and are designed to give students the knowledge and skills they need for work or further study. One T-level qualification is equivalent in UCAS points to three A-levels.

The introduction of T-Levels represent a significant effort by the UK government to improve both the standard and status of Vocational Education In England and Wales.

There are several T-Levels currently available, with more to be released for first teaching in September 2022 and they are very broad in scope, with qualifications being offered in such areas as:

  • agriculture, land management and production
  • building services engineering for construction
  • catering
  • craft and design
  • education and childcare (now available)
  • finance
  • hair, beauty and aesthetics
  • legal
  • management and administration
  • media, broadcast and production
  • science

A full list of T Level Qualifications, 2021

T Levels are designed to give students a third option of study after GCSE, alongside Apprenticeships and A-levels, in fact they seem designed to fit mid way between the two, being more academic than apprenticeships (more classroom based learning) and more hands-on than A-levels.

Design and Delivery

The content of each T-level varies a lot, and there is a lot of content in each – the Digital Production T level specification, designed by Pearsons has a 100 page specification, for example.

The content will be delivered primarily by FE colleges, but also local employers will have to get involved for the 45 days work experience component.

Interestingly there are no national requirements to get onto T Levels, the government has left it to individual colleges to decide on entry requirements.

Each T-level has three components:

  • General competencies – English, Maths and Digital Literacy
  • A Core component – focussing on Business related content/ legal issues which are common across several different T-levels
  • A subject specific component – specific to whatever the T level is!

Assessment

This might vary from T level to T level but the ones I have reviewed have a mixture of assessment by examination, coursework and project work.

For more information the government web site on T-Levels is a good starting point.

T Levels: Positive Evaluations so far

  • T Levels seem to be a good compromise between purely academic A-levels and Apprenticeships which are much more on the job and much less academic.
  • The fact that businesses have had a say in designing the specifications means students should leave college at 18 better prepared for work, which could be good for the economy.
  • The ones I’ve looked at seem to have rigorous specifications and assessment, which should give these new vocational qualifications status.
  • They offer students more flexibility than either and apprenticeship or pure A-levels when they finish – either to work or to university.
  • The fact that there are components common to several T Levels means it’s easier for colleges to deliver them.

Personally I’m more inclined to see T-Levels as a net positive, but there are some potential problems…

T-Levels: Potential Problems

  • These are asking students to specialise from a very young age, at the age of 16, and once they’re a few months in they are pretty much ‘locked into’ that path.
  • There might be something of a shortage of employers willing to provide training places for 45 days, or three months.
  • There could be a shortage of teachers in colleges capable of delivering some of the subject specific knowledge. For example, one of the T-levels has modules in ‘data science’ – most data scientists are working in industry, they aren’t going to take a 50% pay cut to go teach in a college.
  • Many industries move very quickly. It could be challenging keeping teachers in college updated with the relevant knowledge and training to deliver appropriate content in some of these career areas.
  • Some of them probably won’t be very popular – Human Resources in particular springs to mind!

Signposting

This is a useful update for students studying the compulsory module in Education, usually taught in the first year of A-level Sociology.

Please click here to return to the main ReviseSociology home page!

The 2011 Wolfe Report on Vocational Education

The 2011 Review of Vocational Education, also known as the 2011 Wolf Report noted a number of strengths and limitations of Vocational Education in England and Wales in 2011, before going on to make almost 30 recommendations.

This is an important report because it set the scene for a possible major (if very gradual) restructuring of the delivery of vocational education in England and Wales.

The strengths of Vocational Education in 2011

  • Some vocational courses taught important and valuable labour market skills to a very high standard, skills which couldn’t be met through academic courses.
  • Some Vocational courses offered a direct route to higher level study – hundreds of thousands of students had benefited from these.
  • Some prestigious apprenticeships were massively over-subscribed, and thus very popular (in high demand)
  • Good vocational programmes are respected, valuable and an important part of our, and any other country’s, educational provision.

The limitations of Vocational Education in 2011

Too many vocational students were pursuing sub-standard vocational pathways:

  • Many 16 to 17 year olds were moving in and out of education and short-term
    employment.
  • Between a quarter and a third of post-16 vocational students were doing vocational qualifications with little labour market value.
  • At least 350,000 students were getting little to no benefit from the post-16 education system.
  • The report saw English and Maths GCSE (at grades A*-C) as fundamental to young people’s future prospects, yet less than 50% of students had achieved both by the age of 16.
  • The system then steered that 50% of Maths and English failures into ‘inferior’ vocational qualifications.

Recommendations based on the above report

The report made 27 recommendations, including:

  • Schools should have more freedom to offer vocational qualifications for pupils aged 14-16
  • Students who fail their GCSEs in English and Maths at age 16 should be required to redo them as part of their post 16 study.
  • There needs to be a set of general standards for all post 16 vocational programmes
  • Post-16 students shouldn’t be able to pursue a purely occupation based training course, there should be some kind of academic study in there.
  • The bottom quintile of achieving students should pursue post-16 education which focus on employability and ‘core skills’.
  • Employers who provided apprenticeships should be paid.
  • Generally there needs to be better links and standardisation between colleges and employers in the provision of training.
  • If students don’t use up their ‘education allowance by the age of 19’ they should be given a credit to use later on in life.

Some of the recommendations were quite wooly!

The 2015 review of Progress

If you’re interested you can read this here!

Sources

The 2011 Wolfe Report

Vocational Education in Britain Today

Vocational eduacation in Britain today is complex – involving a range or qualifications from GCSEs, BTECs, City and Guids, T levels and higher degree level qualifications and a range of providers – from schools to apprenticeships provided mainly by employers

The Vocational Education landscape in Britain today is very complex: there are number of different types and levels of vocational qualifications, and over 130 different awarding bodies.

This complexity is because there are several different institutions involved with delivering vocational education and awarding qualifications – from schools to employers in many different sectors.

The UK Skills System: An Introduction by The British Council provides a useful overview of the UK’s Technical, Vocational Education and Training (TVET) sector.

  • Schools – who provide 14-16 Vocational Qualifications
  • Further Education Colleges – who mainly provide 16-19 vocational qualifications such as BTECs and City and Guilds qualifications.
  • Universities – who provide Degree level Higher Technical Qualifications (some FE colleges will also provide these)
  • Employers – who provide a range of different apprenticeships
  • Private training providers – who will provide a range of any post-16 qualification.

The report notes that today there are flexible pathways available to learners so that they may move between academic, vocational/professional and apprenticeship routes.

14-16 Vocational GCSEs

These don’t seem to be very popular. This report notes that only 33000 students started a vocational GCSE compared to 565000 who started maths, in 2016-17

16-19 Vocational qualifications

The main types of 16-19 vocational qualifications are either level 2 or level 3 BTECs and City and Guilds qualifications. You can explore the later by visiting the City and Guilds web site, which also has information about apprenticeships.

T-Levels

These are new technical A-levels to be introduced from September 2020 – they are two year courses designed to be the equivalent of 3 A Levels.

They involve at least 45 days of work experience and have been designed to provide students with a direct pathway into skilled employment

They are available in a number of different subject/ employment areas including:

  • accounting
  • catering
  • education and childcare
  • on-site construction
  • media, broadcast and production.

Apprenticeships

In 2018-19 there were almost 750 000 people in Apprenticeships, with the numbers of apprenticeship starts in recent years falling from 500 000 a year to 350 000 a year today.

This House of Commons Briefing Paper on Apprenticeship Statistics is a useful place to explore this further.

Criticisms of Vocational Education today

The RSA notes the following problems:

  • There has been a lack of a clear, long term vision and strategy about what direction vocational education should take.
  • There has been insufficient funding, not helped by funding cuts to the post-16 sector since 2010.
  • There’s been poor employer engagement in training provision.
  • There is a fragmented system of delivery – with some students getting very high quality vocational education, but too many getting sub-standard training.
  • The majority of parents still hold academic qualifications in more esteem than vocational qualifications

Another recent report from 2018 which compares vocational education in Britain with that in France and Germany notes that:

  • The British education system values academic qualifications more and focuses its resources on nurturing the academically most able, vocational education is seen as inferior and gets relatively less funding.
  • Funding for vocational education ‘stop-gap’ or ‘reactionary’ – the government funds vocational opportunities in local areas where industry is in decline, to deal with unemployment, rather than pro-actively funding vocational courses.
  • The standards of British vocational courses are generally lower than in France or Germany
  • The diversity of choice is lower than in France or Germany.
  • These have tended to treat issues of ethnicity and underachievement together with poverty and educational achievement.

Evaluate Sociological Perspectives on Vocational Education (30)

Evaluations in italics!

VocationalSkills
Vocational Education refers to teaching people the specific knowledge and skills to prepare them for a particular career. Vocational Education can either be on the job training – such as with apprenticeships, or courses focused on a particular career in a college (typically 16-19).

The New Right introduced Vocational Educational in the 1980s. At the time they argued that Britain needed job-related training in order to combat high levels of unemployment at that time, and in order to prepare young people for a range of new jobs emerging with new technologies, and to make them more competitive in a globalising economy.

Two vocational policies the New Right introduced were National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and the Youth Training Scheme (YTS). The former involved building a portfolio of evidence to prove you had the specific skills necessary for a job, and the later involved on the job training, in which trainees received a small wage, funded by the government.

At first glance, the expansion of Vocational Education in the 1980s seems to support the Functionalist view of education – as it seems be about getting people ready for work and performing the function of ‘role allocation’ more effectively, however, there were a number of criticisms of early Vocationalism

Two criticisms of these policies were that NVQs were seen by many as an inferior qualification to the more academic ‘A’ level subjects, and much on the job training was of a low quality because it wasn’t very well regulated – some trainees were basically just glorified tea boys (according to research by Marxist sociologist Dan Finn in the 1980s.)

New Labour expanded Vocational Education, seeing it as a way to provide individuals with the training needed to be competitive in a globalised Post-Fordist, high skilled/ high waged economy.

The main plank of Labour’s Vocational Policy was The New Deal for young people which Provided some kind of guaranteed training for any 18-24 year old who had been unemployed for more than 6 months. This was set up in 1998 and initially cost £3.5 billion. Employers were offered a government subsidy to take on people under 25 who had been unemployed for more than 6 months. By March 2003 almost 1 million people had started the New Deal, and 40% of them had moved on to full-time unsubsidised jobs.

A second central aspect of New Labour’s Vocational Policy was the introduction of The Modern Apprenticeships scheme in 2002.There are many different levels of Apprenticeships in a huge range of industries, and they typically involve on the job training in sectors ranging from tourism to engineering. Those undertaking them are paid a small wage, which varies with age, while undertaking training.

Some of the early modern apprenticships were criticised for being exploitative – some companies simply hired workers to a 6 week training course and then sacked them and rehired more trainees as a means of getting cheap labour. However, overall, apprenticeships have been a huge success and there are now hundreds of thousands of people who do them in any one year.

A third strand of New Labour’s Vocational Policy was The Introduction of Vocational A levels –Today, the most commonly recognised type of Vocational A level is the BTEC – Which Edexcel defines as being ‘designed as specialist work-related qualifications and are available in a range of sectors like business, engineering and ICT. A number of BTECs are recognised as Technical Certificates and form part of the Apprenticeship Framework.’

While the purpose of this was to try and eradicate the traditional vocational-academic divide it was mostly working class children went down the vocational route, while middle class children did A levels, which many middle class parents regard as the only ‘proper qualifications’, and from a broadly Marxist analysis Vocational Education simply reinforces the class divide.

In conclusion, the fact that Vocational Education has gradually been extended over the years suggests that successive governments see it as playing an important role in our society, especially in getting children ready for work and providing them with the type of skills our economy needs. It is also clear that a number of children simply are not suited to a purely academic education, so in an increasingly diverse society, it is likely to have a continued role to play. However, we also need to recognise that there are problems with it, such as with unscrupulous employers using on the job training as a means of getting cheap labour, so steps need to be taken to ensure it is effectively regulated.

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