Today the Sutton Trust in collaboration with UCAS have published a report exploring what influences the choices of would-be apprentices and the current barriers students are facing along the journey to an apprenticeship.

In recent years, the demand for apprenticeships has grown significantly. However, previous Sutton Trust research has shown the number of starts for young learners from low socio-economic backgrounds has not matched this growth. We know that twice as many degree apprentices are from the wealthiest areas compared to the poorest, and today’s report shows that a greater proportion of disadvantaged students are now interested in apprenticeship routes, but are less supported throughout their journey.

But there is also good news, today’s research shows that apprenticeships are increasingly being considered by young people exploring their post-16 options. Around half of students c apprenticeships an option for them while studying for GCSEs or National 5s, with those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds 6 percentage points more likely to do so (49% vs 43%).

Despite their interest in potentially pursuing this pathway, previous Sutton Trust research showed that young people have not been the main beneficiaries of higher and degree apprenticeships in recent years.  With less than 5,000 starts at Level 4 and above for under-19 year olds, this shows no sign of changing without intervention. Changes outlined in today’s report that would help support disadvantaged students in accessing apprenticeships include introducing a similar model to that of Access and Participation Plans, but for levy-paying employers who could outline how they would go about recruiting students from a range of disadvantaged backgrounds and allowing levy money to be spent on access and outreach activities.

The report found that a lack of suitable apprenticeships is one of the main barriers not only making high-quality apprenticeships extremely competitive to access but is preventing many from pursuing this pathway. It showed that three in five (61%) former applicants cited ‘there aren’t any apprenticeships near me’ as a top three reason why they did not pursue an apprenticeship. UCAS estimates that by 2030, over half a million students may wish to follow the apprenticeship route, so a significant increase in supply is essential if we are to ensure that they are accessible to young people from low socio-economic backgrounds. This can only be done though collaboration between UCAS, the Department of Education and Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education working together to make processes simpler, less bureaucratic and providing employers of all sizes with high-quality information and guidance on the best apprenticeship standards for their skills gaps.

As well as the lack of suitable apprenticeships, many other barriers also persist, such a lack of high-quality support for students in making decisions and applications. The report highlights that only 50% of apprentices described their experience of applying for apprenticeships as positive, which is a stark contrast to the 90% of university and college applicants, where there is a central application system already in place.

The apprenticeship application process can be complex to navigate and application time-consuming to undertake, making support with applications vital. Worryingly, today’s findings show that 1 in 3 apprentices from a lower socioeconomic background are currently receiving no support with their application.

Given that, it was positive to hear the recent announcement from UCAS and the Department for Education that young people will be able to use UCAS to search and apply for apprenticeships alongside degrees. Students will be able to see more personalised options, while employers will also benefit from better access to young people they may not have been able to reach previously.

Another major barrier highlighted was the financial considerations of undertaking an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships are often framed as a great way to earn while you learn so, perhaps unsurprisingly, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were eight percentage points more likely than their better-off peers to cite pay as a top area of interest when researching apprenticeships (31% vs 23%). However, a quarter of former applicants said they felt they could not afford to undertake an apprenticeship and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were almost twice as likely to say that affordability acts as a barrier. To tackle this, the apprentice minimum wage should be reviewed, to explore whether it could be aligned to the national living wage or national minimum wage. Maintenance loans or bursaries for apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds should also be explored in more depth.

A focus solely on increasing the supply of apprenticeships does not automatically benefit young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Efforts need to be made to ensure they are an accessible option. The barriers highlighted in today’s report emphasise that many apprenticeships are not yet accessible to young people from lower income families, and that more has to be done to tackle this inequality. But good work is being done, with the report also highlighting how employers can work with UCAS to increase the supply of apprenticeships, while also raising awareness and accessibility to high-quality apprenticeships. There is an opportunity for apprenticeships to be a real game changer for social mobility, but only if they’re accessible to all.

Media enquiries

If you're a journalist with a question about our work, get in touch with Sam or Rocky on the number below. The number is also monitored out of hours.

E: [email protected] T: 0204 536 4642

Keep up to date with the latest news