In April 2021, the Children’s Commissioner for England launched ‘The Big Ask’ survey. This was a national consultation exercise with children in England to hear about their aspirations and worries for the future. We received over 550,000 responses, making this the largest ever survey of children in England.
Children’s responses demonstrate that this is an ambitious generation: having a good job in the future was one of the top priorities for 69% of children. Many children mentioned apprenticeships in their responses. They explained how apprenticeships might help them to achieve their professional goals by allowing them to combine workplace training with classroom learning.
What did children say about apprenticeships?
Some children explained that they feel they are not suited to A-level and university study. Instead, they spoke about wanting to learn on-the-job, and to develop their professional skills through practical experience. These children emphasized the need to promote apprenticeships as alternative options to Higher Education:
‘Exams aren’t for everyone so other ways of getting a job like apprenticeships […] should be more accessible’ – Girl, 15
‘More apprenticeships, […] as for many young people the best or only way to learn is outside a classroom in a real job’ – Boy, 17
Young people also emphasized the need for more vocational training in schools, to diversify the range of skills they can develop, and prepare them for a greater range of professions in the future:
‘In many schools across England schools only teach academic subjects and there are not many, if any, vocational subjects, which are needed for many important jobs and careers. This would set back many young people’s education as they would have to wait until college to start vocational studies’ – Boy, 14
What are some of the barriers that young people face to taking-up apprenticeships?
Children highlighted several barriers to taking-up apprenticeships.
Some young people talked about the stigma they feel if they choose to complete an apprenticeship rather than attend university. They explained how they felt vocational training is not valued as highly as a university degree by employers, schools, and wider society:
‘I think for those people who take anything vocational there is a massive stigma around it’ – Girl, 17
‘There is little to [no] talk about the option of apprenticeships and instead teachers and advisers talk as if there is no option but university. This can make it feel like there is less support for students like me who are most likely going into an apprenticeship after sixth form’ – Boy, 17
In addition to this perceived stigma, some young people highlighted a lack of information in school about apprenticeship opportunities in comparison to the information provided on applying to university:
‘As much as it is spoken about more than it used to be, things like apprenticeships and other options other than university are not given as much attention, so students who may achieve what they want through apprenticeships instead of having to go through university […] don’t always realise that there are apprenticeships for what they might want to do’ – Girl, 15
‘Schools only push you to strive for college and do not teach young people there are other options that can give you qualifications. Teach young people it’s okay not to go to college and to want to do an apprenticeship instead!!!’ – Girl, 16
This lack of information in school on apprenticeships meant that some young people had to do their own research about apprenticeships, or they went to university when it may not have been the best choice had they known about the range of options available to them:
‘Young people being pressured into going to university when it might not be the best option for them. […] Other options such as an apprenticeship or going straight into work would be a better option’ – Boy, 16
‘My school did not promote apprenticeships or alternative paths other than university to me in careers meetings. My application to a degree apprenticeship was independently researched and developed’ – Boy, 17
Some young people discussed the limited availability of apprenticeships as a barrier to achieving their professional ambitions:
‘Apprenticeships are a good route for those wanting to leave formal education post-16 and I feel there needs to be more workplaces offering this because, at the moment, I think it is very difficult to get a job and start lives of our own’ – Girl, 15
‘Unless you want to go to university, apprenticeships, and jobs are very limited for young people. There is no career advice at school to make meaningful decisions’ – Boy, 17
Young people also feel that apprenticeships are very dependent upon where they live. This is particularly the case for young people who live outside of cities. These children explained that there are limited opportunities for apprenticeships in their local area:
‘Living in a small town often means there are less creative college courses or apprenticeships. If you found a course such as floristry you would have to travel very far’ – Girl, 15
There remains a gendered disparity in apprenticeship take-up. Although almost half of all apprenticeships are taken up by girls, in the most recent data, only 13% of STEM apprenticeships starts were girls. This was reflected in responses in ‘The Big Ask,’ where girls discussed the need for a wider range of apprenticeships to be available, and for all young people to be encouraged to take them up, regardless of their background or gender:
‘Lack of opportunities for apprenticeships […] children actually want to do, for example doing a film apprenticeship not a plumbing one’ – Girl, 15
‘There are also not enough apprenticeships for a variety of high-income careers’ – Girl, 17
‘Make apprenticeships widely available and actively encourage young people to engage with them’ – Girl, 16
Girls and boys both wanted to see more apprenticeship opportunities in industries outside of STEM and construction. There is a particular desire for more apprenticeships to be available in media and creative industries, which currently only account for 0.5% of apprenticeship starts.
Young people also mentioned that the covid-19 pandemic has affected apprenticeship opportunities. Many apprenticeships were unavailable during the pandemic, with the 2020/21 year recording an 18% drop in apprenticeship starts during the August-October time period. The largest fall was witnessed in under-19s. As one 17-year-old boy explained:
‘When I applied for an apprenticeship last year, I got to the interview process but in August (when they were supposed to say if they will offer or not) they emailed saying that the programme was cancelled due to coronavirus’
We welcome the recent bounce back in apprenticeship starts, which were 3% higher in August-October 2021 compared to the same time period in 2019, pre-pandemic.
How can children’s access to apprenticeships in England be improved?
It is great to hear from children directly about their ambitions for the future, and how apprenticeships can help them to achieve their goals. In the aftermath of the pandemic, now is the time to set out a clear path for all children leaving education, with opportunities to train and enter exciting careers across a wide range of sectors.
To help more young people to access apprenticeships and vocational training, we have the following recommendations:
- We welcome the implementation of Local Skills Improvement Plans, and the investment of £3.8bn in skills training that has been outlined in the Levelling Up White Paper. We would like to see a commitment by the government for a portion of this funding to be ringfenced for the creation of 50,000 new apprenticeships for 16-18-year-olds across a wide range of sectors. We also recommend that the cap on numbers of apprenticeships for SMEs should be removed or raised, to encourage more SMEs to introduce apprenticeships
- We welcome the continuation of the Kickstart Scheme into 2022. We would like to see this continuation being integrated more fully with long-term strategies to help young people into work, such as traineeships. This could include incentives and support for Kickstart employers to create long-term jobs or apprenticeship schemes for young people after their Kickstart placement comes to an end
- The Skills White Paper requires schools to provide opportunities for pupils to learn about apprenticeships and technical education options. We support a continued expansion and improvement of careers guidance within schools, and we would like to see the Sir John Holman Review being broadened to include the quality of careers advice. This would be with a view to ensuring that every child can access high quality careers advice in school, with good information about non-academic career routes.