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EPALE - Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe


Apprenticeship policy in England takes an unexpected turn

by Markus Palmén
Language: EN
Document available also in: HU FR RO HR PL

For youths, apprenticeships have offered an increasingly popular alternative to high-cost university education. For adults, advanced apprenticeships can offer a route to career progress. But newly introduced policy designed to increase apprenticeships in England may not be working out as intended according to fresh enrolment figures. Check out Markus Palmen's reflections on the topic and watch his video interview about intergenerational learning between older craftsmen and young apprentices.


Vocational education through apprenticeships has been a rising trend in England. Apprenticeship starts have been on an increasing trend since 2005. Last year, in 2016, 509,000 people started an apprenticeship, compared to 500,000 in the previous year, and 440,000 in 2014.


Numbers of apprentices falls

The apprenticeship trend has gone hand in hand with policy intent of the UK government to increase the number of apprenticeships. This intent has been building through a number of expert panel recommendations, the last of which being the Sainsbury Review (2015, an expert panel of industry and education specialists).

The most recent policy mechanism put in place to increase apprenticeships is the Apprenticeship Levy. The Levy requires large companies (paying out more than 3 million pounds in salaries) to pay 0,5% of their wage bill into the Levy, which is then used to subsidise companies that take on apprentices.

However, the most recent apprenticeship figures indicate that the number of starts has dropped dramatically, as much as 61 % compared to the same period last year. What could be the causes?

Reasons are only just starting to be debated but critics of the government policy are pointing to the design of the Levy system, favouring big companies and advanced-level apprenticeships, as opposed to entry-level opportunities for young people.


Career progress and ‘earn while you learn’

This cut in an otherwise upwards trend occurs at a time of overall changes in the apprenticeship as a VET offer.

‘The educational level of apprenticeships is increasing, which means that apprenticeships are used by many for career progress rather than career entry. This change of emphasis may indeed make apprenticeships less accessible to younger people,’ explains principal research fellow Becci Newton from the Institute for Employment Studies.

Illustrating this point, across the last 10 years, adult learners have featured prominently in the increasing trend for apprenticeship starts, more so than young people

For young people the motivation to apprentice is different. Apprenticeship fees are fully funded meaning young people have access even to university-level qualifications without tuition fee and subsistence debt from university. University tuition fees have risen markedly in the UK in the last decade.

Becci Newton, however, warns against drawing too strong parallels between higher education and apprenticeships.

‘An apprenticeship is a different experience from full-time study. It is unlikely that apprentices can build the same social capital as university students and the same networks that may facilitate their careers.’

Nevertheless, as Newton points out, a key concern of the Sainsbury Review (2016) and the Post-16 Skills Plan has been to establish parity of esteem between academic and vocational routes and to enable transfer between these.

‘It is too soon to say whether this ambition can be realised but we know the economic returns to apprenticeships to be excellent, and that apprentices acquire skills, behaviours and knowledge that are valued by employers.’

A variety to choose from

Old stereotypes linking apprenticeships to manual trades are outdated. Last year in England, the business, administration and legal sectors had most apprenticeship starts, followed by health, public services and care.

All apprenticeships are focused around work-based learning, with a senior colleague guiding the apprentice into their common profession. Many apprenticeships, however, combine on-the-job learning with theoretical studies taking place in a college or a private training company.

Apprenticeships are grouped into different categories according to level of education and entry requirements. More advanced apprenticeships qualify the learner to continue to higher education, and a relatively new type of apprenticeships – degree apprenticeships – combine on-the-job learning with university studies.

Start-ups and businesses are also seizing the new opportunities offered by apprenticeships. An example is WhiteHat, headed by Euan Blair, son of ex-premier Tony Blair. The company links would-be apprentices with apprenticeship offering companies, trying to find a mutually beneficial match.


Markus Palmen is a journalist, writer and audiovisual producer, and a freelancer. Since August 2017 he has been EPALE's Thematic Coordinator for Policy. For eight years Markus was the Managing Editor and Editor-in-Chief for the European Lifelong Learning Magazine.

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  • Christine Bertram's picture

    Hi Markus,


    Great piece and the video case is fab.


    Just one question:

    How can the number of apprenticeship starts be on the rise, but at the same time register a dramatic fall? I can't follow your argument there.

    Would be great if you could clarify that.


    Thanks in advance.