England needs an apprenticeship revolution, with 150-300,000 extra three-year apprenticeship starts each year for young people, according to a major new analysis by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) for the Sutton Trust published today.

The radical blueprint, Real Apprenticeships, analyses the current situation in England and draws on experiences in Germany, Switzerland, Singapore, Australia and other international systems to set out a path that would transform skills and opportunities for young people in England, and benefit the economy by around £8bn a year.

At present, fewer than 200,000 of the 520,000 apprenticeships starting each year in England are at level 3 (A level standard) or higher, and only 61,000 new apprenticeship starts were created for young people. This compares to 570,000 apprenticeship starts in Germany for young people, 90 percent of which are at level 3 or above.  Switzerland has 43 apprentices at level 3 for every 1000 staff, compared with 40 in Germany, 39 in Australia and 33 in Austria. The UK has just six per 1000.

England’s vocational system has 18,000 different qualifications compared with just 330 qualifications in Germany.

The recent expansion in ‘apprenticeships’ has been driven by low level qualifications, often targeted at older workers. Since 2010, 58% of ‘apprenticeships’ have been below level 3 and 75% have been for people aged 25 and older, many of them in work.

A recent National Apprenticeship Service report found 11 young people chasing every apprenticeship, with 33 applying for every plumbing apprenticeship.

BCG calculates that a move to three year apprenticeships on a German scale could boost the economy by £8 billion a year and reduce public spending by £2.5 billion, after the initial cost of apprentice wage subsidies.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “This ground-breaking analysis points the way forward for politicians and policymakers to make real apprenticeships the norm. Having excellent provision for those who do not go to university is as important for social mobility as good university degrees.  Students find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand they must incur large debts to get a university education, and on the other the lack of good apprenticeships means they feel they have little choice but to go to university.

“England’s patchwork vocational system not only hinders our economic performance, it prevents hundreds of thousands of young people from gaining good job skills. Many countries value those who train in the workplace and study at the same time as highly, if not more highly, than those who attend university.

“We need a step change in the provision of real apprenticeships for all occupations from bankers to bakers and a revolution in how they are regarded in society.”

Ian Walsh, Partner and Managing Director of BCG in London said: “Apprenticeships and vocational education are crucial to the UK’s future prosperity.  The UK has much to learn from other systems and the prize for doing so is considerable.  Our proposals build on the lessons of other countries to produce a practical blueprint that could transform the life chances of our young people if we are willing to make the radical changes required.”

The report recommends:

  • A radical expansion of three-year apprenticeships, with 300,000 extra places, making three years the norm. Around 10% of apprenticeships could be for two years in jobs requiring less training, and some could last four years.
  • Apprenticeships should all be of high quality with a combination of workplace training and off-site learning. Young people could start an apprenticeship with relatively low or high skills, but would build those within the apprenticeship programme over three years, rather than taking several disconnected qualifications, as often happens now.
  • While large firms would directly employ apprentices, smaller firms could hire apprentices employed by training agencies, encouraging more small firm participation.
  • New licences to practise in a host of trades and professions, certifying that people have the skills needed to do the job, protecting consumers and boosting the importance of having completed an apprenticeship successfully.
  • Radical improvements to careers advice in schools, so that teachers guide students to good vocational options and apprenticeships where appropriate, and an end to the practice of keeping students who are unlikely to achieve A-levels in school sixth forms.
  • Reinvigorating Sector Skills Councils to kitemark qualifications and select between one and five preferred qualifications for each profession.
  • Ensuring that University Technical Colleges become high status and good quality centres of excellence, limiting their expansion to 100 UTCs, addressing skills needs and providing a good geographical spread.
  • Wage subsidies through tax breaks or national insurance contributions for employers who take on apprentices to boost employer engagement. Subsidies would start at 60% of the average £9,300 cost of hiring an apprentice in the first year, falling to 20% in the third year. This subsidy would be reduced for later cohorts until the system pays for itself after twelve years.


  1.   The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 135 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to Access to the Professions.
  2.  The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is a global management consulting firm and the world’s leading advisor on business strategy. BCG partners with clients from the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors in all regions to identify their highest-value opportunities, address their most critical challenges, and transform their enterprises. Its customized approach combines deep insight into the dynamics of companies and markets with close collaboration at all levels of the client organisation. This ensures that its clients achieve sustainable competitive advantage, build more capable organisations, and secure lasting results. Founded in 1963, BCG is a private company with 78 offices in 43 countries. For more information, please visit bcg.com.
  3.  The report Real Apprenticeships is available here.

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