Hundreds of thousands of young people are being encouraged into low-skill, low-pay, on-the-job training schemes to meet ministers’ “mad” target of creating three million apprenticeships by 2020, new figures reveal. 60 per cent of all new apprentices are now studying for qualifications worth no more than five GCSE passes. In contrast, less than 3 per cent of new apprenticeships were at the higher level – equivalent to a foundation degree. There have been only 220 new science and maths apprenticeships created at any level, while engineering and manufacturing apprenticeships make up fewer than one in five of the new jobs.
The roles being offered on the Government’s website appear to be little more than traditional school-leaver jobs in clerical, catering and retail work “rebranded” as apprenticeships. There are now apprenticeships in street cleaning, warehouse labouring and shop work. This allows employers to pay a new 18-year-old worker just £2.73 an hour compared with the national minimum wage for that age range of £5.13. While employers are obliged to pay those staff for the one day a week they spend in academic training, this is more than made up for by the government grants available for taking on apprentices.
Experts warned that ministers risked “devaluing” the apprenticeship brand in their efforts to hit an artificial political target. They pointed out that there were only two million 16- to 18-year-olds in the country, many of whom were still at school – making it hard to achieve the Government’s aim even if it were desirable to do so.
“It is a mad and artificial political target which risks undermining the reputation of apprenticeships,” said Professor Alison Wolf, who chaired a Government review into vocational education in 2011. “What the Government should be doing is concentrating on those high-value apprenticeships which teach vocational skills in manufacturing and engineering which historically Britain has been bad at fostering. The danger is that money and resources is put into hitting a meaningless numerical target.”
“The political narrative and the reality of what is happening in apprenticeships are quite far apart from one another,” said Naomi Weir, the Campaign for Science and Engineering group’s acting director. “The political narrative is about high-level, technical, graduate-equivalent apprenticeships whereas the reality is that there are only a few thousand of across the whole apprenticeship system. That is not a viable alternative to university. It could be but there needs to be a lot of effort to get us into a position of having a high-level technical system that we need to run alongside higher education.”