Co-author of our latest impact brief into Covid-19 and apprenticeships, Katherine Doherty, discusses the repercussions of the pandemic on the apprenticeships sector.

The Covid-19 pandemic is having serious implications on the fragility of the apprenticeship infrastructure, significantly affecting both current and future apprentices. The unique position of apprenticeships – which combine education, training and employment – has made the sector particularly vulnerable to the current health crisis.

The third impact brief in our series highlights some similar challenges to those in our school shutdown and university access papers, such as young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds not being able to access learning due to lacking a device or internet access. 37% of surveyed employers reported that some of their apprentices were not able to work from home due to a lack of equipment, or because their role was not suitable for such work. A further 14% said some apprentices could not access learning from home due to a lack of internet or devices. There is a disparity between the support for disadvantaged pupils in schools receiving tech from the government and the lack of such subsidy for disadvantaged apprentices, where employers or training providers are expected to pick this up.

Another issue, also highlighted in our previous impact briefs, is the disappearance of face to face information and guidance across schools or colleges. With career guidance for young people interested in apprenticeships already inconsistent, the loss of this face to face support and the opportunity to network with employers or current apprentices is another hurdle future apprentices have to navigate. The Trust knows how critical outreach work is, especially at this time, and will be delivering our first apprenticeship summer school digitally this year to ensure that less advantaged young people have fair access to future opportunities.

Many positive initiatives have been put in place already to try and ensure some continuity across the apprenticeship landscape during the pandemic. Furloughed apprentices being encouraged to continue training or furloughed staff being allowed to start an apprenticeship where possible, is an excellent example but more should be done to ensure all employers know this is an option to minimise the financial impacts on apprentices through further redundancies or breaks in learning. The provider support relief scheme, which if widened to include the majority of training providers, has the potential to have substantial impact and ensure that high quality apprenticeship providers are still standing to deliver the knowledge and skills they have spent years building.

Going forward, apprenticeship starts are not going to be seen in the numbers we have grown accustomed to and as competition for fewer apprenticeship vacancies increases, the potential for apprenticeships to drive social mobility is likely to be seriously affected. We know from our Better Apprenticeships report that since the age-based funding rules were relaxed, the majority of apprentices have been 19+ and many have been over 25 and existing employees. In our Degree Apprenticeships: Levelling Up? report published today, we discuss how since the implementation of the levy this has been further exacerbated. Young apprentices from deprived areas made up 9% of degree level apprentices in 2016/17, but just 6% in 2018/19. In that same time, the proportion of degree level apprentices older than 25 from the most advantaged backgrounds has more than doubled, from 5% to 11%. To prevent the current situation further crowding out less advantaged young people from accessing degree-level apprenticeships, it is now essential to prioritise levy funding on younger, newer starters and allow a proportion of levy to be spend on widening participation activity. A salary ceiling should be introduced for levy-funded apprenticeships, making sure that apprenticeships are being funded for those who will benefit from them most.

Undoubtedly, apprentices will play a crucial role in securing the UK’s economic recovery post-coronavirus, so it is vital that apprentices are fully supported, employers are incentivised to ensure apprenticeship opportunities continue to be a valuable route to a career and apprenticeships now become the powerful vehicles for social mobility they have the potential to be.

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