The apprenticeship system is failing disadvantaged young people in England, warns the Social Mobility Commission.
The commission also says the Covid 19 pandemic will make things worse and will exacerbate youth unemployment.
In a report, it highlights a 36% decline in people from disadvantaged backgrounds starting apprenticeships, compared with 23% for other groups.
The Department for Education said it was “absolutely committed to levelling up opportunity across the country”.
The Social Mobility Commission’s report is published as the Education Select Committee prepares to take evidence about apprenticeships at a session on Wednesday.
The report, Apprenticeships and social mobility: Fulfilling potential, says the introduction of an apprenticeship levy in 2017 has led to a “collapse in overall apprenticeship starts that hit disadvantaged learners hardest”.
The apprenticeship levy takes 0.5% of the salary bill from major employers that have an annual pay bill over £3m, with the intention of using the money to improve skills and provide training.
The report finds that between 2015-16 and 2017-18, the number of apprenticeship starters from disadvantaged backgrounds fell by more than a third (36%), as opposed to 23% for other apprentices.
It also highlights:
The commission’s report also says that most of the benefits of apprenticeships are going to those from wealthier backgrounds.
But it stresses that apprenticeships are “one of the most effective means of boosting social mobility for workers from poorer backgrounds – if they can get into and through the system”.
Lead report author, Alice Battiston from London Economics said: “There is a severe disadvantage gap throughout the entire apprenticeship training journey, and this has worsened over time.
“Not only has the proportion of new starters from disadvantaged backgrounds declined over time, but they have also benefited less than their better-off peers from the shift towards higher-level programmes.”
Steven Cooper, joint deputy chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said: “The apprenticeship levy, introduced in 2017, has disproportionately funded higher-level apprenticeships for learners from more advantaged communities, rather than those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds who would benefit more.
“It is no longer credible for the government to assume that apprenticeships automatically improve social mobility and leave the system to its own devices,” he said.
“Strategic action and direction are needed to target the system better on disadvantaged communities and improve the system’s value for money.”
Following the coronavirus pandemic, there are concerns that disadvantaged apprentices are at further risk from an economic decline, with many employed in hard-hit sectors such as hospitality and retail.
“The pandemic is likely to have made the disadvantage gap worse. There needs to be urgent consideration of the impact of the apprenticeship levy on social mobility outcomes,” added Ms Battiston.
Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said apprenticeships would be one of the building blocks of economic recovery after Covid-19.
“If the government is serious about offering an ‘apprenticeship guarantee’ it will heed calls from the further education sector for a post-Covid skills funding package, address the barriers to success and support employers to provide the opportunities and decent pay new apprentices need to succeed.”
“As this report shows, many disadvantaged apprentices face significant barriers to success already, but with warnings from the FE sector that a shortage of new places and large numbers of apprentice redundancies could be on the horizon, their future may look even bleaker without urgent government action.”
A DfE spokeswoman said: “We are absolutely committed to levelling up opportunity across the country, and continue to do all we can to make sure no-one is left behind as a result of coronavirus.
“Apprenticeships are an excellent way to get into a wide range of rewarding careers and they will continue to play a vital role delivering the high-quality skills employers and our economy will need to recover.
“We are looking at how we can make sure more people and businesses can take advantage of apprenticeships in the future, including supporting employers, especially small and medium sized businesses, to take on new apprentices this year.”
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