Report Overview

In recent years, there has been a large push to increase the supply and quality of apprenticeships. The Apprenticeship Levy – a form of taxation designed to help businesses offer apprenticeships – was introduced in 2017, alongside other policy changes such as the move from Frameworks to Standards and new rules on the quality of training.

But despite efforts to improve the apprenticeship system, numbers have been falling. In light of recent key policy changes, and disruption from the pandemic, how have apprenticeships evolved; who is accessing which apprenticeships; and what might these trends mean for social mobility?

In this report, academics from the London School of Economics and the University of Surrey investigate how apprenticeships evolved between 2015 to 2020, looking at changes in their composition and participation differences across different groups, with a particular focus on those from disadvantaged backgrounds.


Apprenticeship starts fell by almost a quarter between 2017 and 2018.


The proportion of degree apprentices who were eligible for free school meals.


The dropout rate for apprenticeships started in 2018.

Key Findings
  • The number and composition of apprenticeships has changed considerably since 2017. There was a dramatic decline in numbers between 2017 and 2018, after the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy, and new regulations on the quality and duration of apprenticeships. There was a further decline during the pandemic, and the most recent government data (beyond that available for this report) indicates that apprenticeship starts have not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels.
  • Level 2 apprenticeships have dropped the most, with a rise in the number and share of apprenticeships at higher and degree level. Apprenticeships in construction and planning, as well as information and communication technology have increased, while the share of apprenticeships in retail has fallen substantially.
  • While in 2015, apprenticeships were more likely to be taken up by people from more deprived areas, this is now equal across quintiles of local deprivation, which seems to have been driven by the changes in the composition of apprenticeships by level. More prosperous areas have benefited disproportionately from the expansion of Degree Apprenticeships.
  • In January 2020, about 17% of students were eligible for free school meals. Among apprentices under 30, this is much lower: 13% at Level 2; 9% at Level 3; 7% at Level 4/5 and 5% at Level 6 (or degree). This compares to 6.7% of those entering university. Fewer degree apprentices are eligible for free school meals than those attending university.
  • While the gap in representation is most noticeable in the highest level apprenticeships, between 2015 and 2020, there was a decline of up to 2 percentage points in the representation of individuals from poorer backgrounds within each level of apprenticeship.
  • Young people have not been the main beneficiaries of the increased availability of Higher and Degree Apprenticeships. Those over the age of 25 account for the vast majority of those undertaking Higher Apprenticeships and over half of those undertaking Degree Apprenticeships.
  • It may be of concern that 19-24 year olds have not benefited as much as those aged 25 or more from the expansion of apprenticeships at Level 4 and above since returns to apprenticeships are typically higher for younger age groups.
  • There is a striking gender difference when it comes to the age distribution of apprentices. Males are more dominant among younger groups (around 60%), with this being reversed for those over the age of 25.
  • Ethnic minorities are also under-represented in apprenticeship starts overall. When broken down by age group, this under-representation is strong for 16-18 year olds (White British account for 90 per cent of starts) and for 19-24 year olds (White British account for 83 per cent of starts), but not for those aged 25 and over, where the distribution by ethnic grouping is much closer to that of the wider working age population (White British account for 74 per cent of starts).
  • For apprenticeships beginning in 2017 achievement rates are usually between 63 and 71 per cent, but lower for older apprentices. Rates of non-achievement and dropout are of concern.
  • It is very common for individuals to have multiple apprenticeships. This is most notable for 19-24 year olds – around 45 per cent of them starting apprenticeships at Levels 3-5 have previously done one, usually at a lower level.
Sutton Trust Recommendations
  1. Action should be taken by government and businesses to address the large decline in overall apprenticeship starts seen over the last few years, with a specific focus on access to apprenticeships in the most deprived areas of the country.
  2. While the growth of degree apprenticeships in recent years is welcome, action should be taken to further boost the supply of higher and degree level apprenticeships targeted at young people, and advertised externally on portals such as UCAS or Find an Apprenticeship.
  3. The apprenticeship levy should be reviewed, with social mobility and widening participation as an explicit criterion. The balance of apprenticeships across age groups, levels, those with equivalent qualifications and existing staff versus new starters should be examined. The spending of levy money on access activities should be both permitted and promoted, including bursaries, outreach, recruitment and travel expenses for disadvantaged apprentices.
  4. Measures should be taken to rebalance the profile of apprenticeships back towards those who are younger and more disadvantaged. This could include:
    • Requiring employers to ‘top up’ levy funding for certain categories of apprentice, or otherwise incentivising the creation of apprenticeships most conducive to increasing opportunities for groups who need it most.
    • A maximum salary ceiling for levy funded apprentices, meaning that limited public funding is concentrated on providing opportunities for those who would not otherwise be able to afford training.
  1. In order to improve transparency and ensure that apprenticeships are delivering for social mobility, levy employers should be required to publish anonymised statistics on the age, level, socio-economic background and salary level of apprentices, along with the proportion of new and existing staff benefiting from apprenticeships.
  2. Schools should be supported to provide good quality careers advice on apprenticeships, and the information gap among schools and teachers should be addressed with better access to information and resources.
  3. Universities should step up access and outreach activities for degree apprenticeships, working in collaboration with employers and harnessing the experience, skills and resources of both.