Disadvantaged young people are substantially less likely than their better-off peers to start the best apprenticeships, according to new research published by the Sutton Trust today. Just 7% of young men and 11% of young women who were eligible for free school meals take up an apprenticeship at Level 3– A-level standard – much less than 14% in the cohort as a whole.

Better Apprenticeships draws on research by teams from the Centre for Vocational Education Research at LSE and UCL Institute of Education to analyse the current state of play for apprenticeships in England. The Sutton Trust wants to see any young person who starts on a level 2 apprenticeship – GCSE standard – automatically progressing to level 3. It also wants to ensure that all apprenticeships are of high quality, with many more higher and degree level apprenticeships available for young people.

The LSE research – which draws on a new analysis of what happened to 565,000 young people between 2002/03 and 2014/15 – finds that there is a stark gender difference in earnings prospects for young people entering apprenticeships, which becomes particularly pronounced for those at a higher level. Controlling for other factors, by the time they are 28, men who take a Level 3 apprenticeship might expect to earn up to 37% more than their peers who left education after achieving A-levels. However, the figure for women is just 9%. Overall, the earnings difference for those with apprenticeships is almost four times larger for men than for women.

This is largely due to the types of apprenticeships that men and women go into. Men are concentrated in higher-earning sectors like engineering and building and construction, while women are more likely to take apprenticeships in lower-earning sectors like hairdressing and childcare.

The report finds that just 17% of young people who embark on a level 2 apprenticeship progress to a level 3. Progression to higher level qualifications is crucial to the workplace prospects of young people, and too often they run into an invisible ceiling. (See note 5)

The Government is committed to creating three million apprenticeships by 2020. But 40% of those are for adults. In 2015/16, there were 291,300 Level 2 apprenticeship starts (equivalent to GCSE level), 190,900 Level 3 (A level equivalent), and 27,200 at Level 4 or 5 (higher and degree level). However, just 59%, 55% and 28% of these, respectively, are taken up by those under 25. Previous Sutton Trust research has shown that in countries like Germany, which have the best apprenticeships schemes, 90% of all young people are on a level 3 equivalent route. The figure for England is just 40%.

Today’s research from the UCL Institute of Education finds that although England has some good quality apprenticeships, too many are failing to provide sufficient training and access to skilled work to enable participants to progress. In particular, two-thirds of apprenticeships are estimated to be merely ‘converting’ existing employees and certifying existing skills, rather than focusing on expanding expertise.

The researchers found that the focus from government is still on boosting the numbers of apprenticeships rather than on the sustained work required to improve quality, with the Levy potentially incentivising greater numbers of these ‘conversions’. Whilst the report shows how lessons can be learned from existing good quality apprenticeships – supported by a new development-led inspection process-, it warns that these problems are exacerbated by weak demand for advanced and higher-level skills across the economy, and particularly in some low paid service sectors.

The Trust and the researchers are concerned that this will be a barrier to apprenticeships acting as a vehicle for social mobility. To make sure that the apprenticeships system benefits all young people, and particularly those from disadvantaged homes, the Trust would like to see:

  • More advanced and higher apprenticeships, targeted at younger age groups, to give young people a platform for progression to higher level learning, pay and careers.
  • Seamless and automatic progression for those beginning on lower level apprenticeships to the next level of education and training.
  • Apprenticeships that give apprentices the expertise and capability to adapt to change in the labour market, rather than merely the accreditation of current skills.
  • A widening access function for the Institute of Apprenticeships to ensure access to advanced and higher apprenticeships for those from less advantaged backgrounds.
  • Better careers advice for young people that tackles gender segregation and takes into account the benefits of apprenticeships as a route to labour market recognition and educational progression.

The Trust is launching a campaign on apprenticeships in 2018 to ensure that there are good-quality apprenticeships available for young people of all backgrounds.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation said today:

“Today’s report raises serious concerns as to how much apprenticeships play a role in improving social mobility.

“The Government’s target for apprenticeships to 2020 is three million.  More of these need to be high quality apprenticeships which offer genuine alternatives to A-levels and degrees.  There are fewer than 8,000 higher and degree level apprenticeships taken up by young people each year compared to 330,000 taking up degree courses.  It is also very concerning that people from low and moderate income backgrounds are much less likely than their peers to take up high quality apprenticeships.”

You can read the full report here.


  1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 200 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 first report was carried out by Alison Fuller and Lorna Unwin of the UCL Institute of Education. It reviewed evidence on the evolution of apprenticeship policy, particularly in relation to quality, progression and social mobility. The second report was carried out by Chiara Cavaglia, Sandra McNally and Gugliemo Ventura of the Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER) at LSE. It used linked administrative data from the National Pupil Database, Individual Learner Record and Higher Education Statistics Agency to track a cohort of 565,000 students who left compulsory schooling in the academic year 2002/03. Data on their participation in apprenticeships was then linked to earnings data from HMRC, and earnings were tracked until the cohort were aged 27/28.
  3. Earnings differentials were calculated controlling for factors including prior attainment, secondary school attendance, demographics and labour market experience. There are unobserved factors such as social skills and motivation which cannot be controlled for, so estimates should not be interpreted as the direct casual effects of taking on an apprenticeship, which are likely to be smaller.
  4. Of the later 2010/11 cohort, 25% of those starting level 2 apprenticeships had progressed to level 3 by the age of 20.

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