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Apprenticeships: Bridging the Gap for Disadvantaged Learners?

Since its inception in 2017, the apprenticeship levy has been hailed as a means to bolster workforce skills and provide opportunities for learners to take a different path into their career. However, our research has unveiled a stark reality: the levy’s impact disproportionately favours learners from more advantaged backgrounds, meaning apprenticeships are not living up to their potential as real drivers of social mobility. 

Following the levy’s introduction, there was a large fall in the number of learner starts – with the worst-off learners bearing the brunt. Between 2015/16 and 2017/18, the number of disadvantaged apprentice starts overall fell by 36% – 13% more than the corresponding drop for their more privileged apprentice colleagues.

Another striking finding is the skewed distribution of higher-level apprenticeships funded by the levy. These opportunities, often in lucrative fields like IT and engineering, are increasingly monopolised by learners from higher socio-economic backgrounds. Meanwhile, workplace learners from lower socio-economic backgrounds are not only less likely to secure apprenticeships at all, but where they are successful, it is likely to be for an entry-level Intermediate placement in sectors with traditionally lower pay rates, such as health, education or hospitality. The retail and hospitality sectors, where learners from lower socio-economic backgrounds are overrepresented, have experienced drastic declines in apprenticeship starts, exacerbating these disparities in access even further.

Disadvantaged learners not only face greater challenges in accessing apprenticeships in the first place, but also they encounter lower completion rates. A lack of opportunities in deprived areas can force learners to undertake expensive and difficult journeys to reach work, keeping an apprenticeship out of reach for many.

The consequences of this inequality are far-reaching. Apprenticeships offer immense social mobility potential – studies show that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds reap the most substantial benefits, with their post-completion earnings premiums surpassing those of their more privileged counterparts.

For example, disadvantaged female learners report a 16% earnings premium from intermediate apprenticeships by age 28, compared to 10% for non-disadvantaged women. Similarly, the earnings gap diminishes as apprentices progress through higher levels of qualification, with the gap in annual earnings for disadvantaged men declining from £2,000 per year to £1,400 to £1,200 on moving from Level 1 vocational qualifications to intermediate and advanced apprenticeships. 

The transformative potential of apprenticeships in bridging socio-economic disparities and addressing skills gaps is clear; however, their true potential can only be realised by dismantling barriers and creating pathways for disadvantaged learners to thrive, which requires concerted efforts from policymakers, employers, and apprenticeship providers. 

As part of our celebration of National Apprenticeship Week 2024, our Chair, Alun Francis, was joined by Tom Richmond, Founder and Director of EDSK to discuss what can be done to address these barriers. Listen now on Youtube, Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

If you’re interested in offering apprenticeships, or working to make your existing apprenticeship more accessible and impactful for learners from lower socio-economic backgrounds, check out our Apprenticeships Toolkit for practical tips, guidance and encouragement.