The future of apprenticeships: a guide

What are apprenticeships?

An apprenticeship is a combination of practical training and paid work which allows students to learn a focused set of skills while gaining essential experience in a working environment. They will work alongside more experienced, skilled colleagues to develop practical ‘on the job’ knowledge that can be transferred directly into their chosen career.   One of the key advantages of apprenticeships, and one of the reasons they are proving an increasingly popular choice in the UK, is the fact that they allow students to earn while they learn. It’s also not uncommon for an apprenticeship to lead directly into a full time career with excellent opportunities for progression.   While some apprenticeships may involve full-time work, others might combine part-time work with weekly days at college or other training environments. With success comes progression, and research has found that apprentices earn between £120 to £170 in an average week. That’s a huge difference when compared to the £9,000 of debt that a university degree can land a student in per year of tuition.

Busting some myths around apprenticeships

  • Taking an apprenticeship is not the same as turning your back on university. Many apprentices go on to get degrees and study for higher level qualifications.  
  • Apprenticeships aren’t just for students who ‘don’t get the grades’ for university. They’re an excellent alternative for those who want a debt free way to get straight into work and start earning while they learn relevant industry-recognised skills.  
  • Apprenticeships aren’t easy. There are some extremely competitive and challenging courses across a wide variety of industries and sectors.

Why have apprenticeships become a hot topic?

According the Office of National Statistics (ONS), 1.85 million people in the UK were unemployed in 2015[1]. Of that number, almost a million are 18-24 year old NEETs. To put that into perspective, 1 in 5 young adults in the UK are not in employment, education or training.

The Government have a vested interest in lowering the number of people who are not in education, employment or training (NEETs). Keeping this number low is good for business, good for students and great for the economy, and apprenticeships are one of the most important ways for the UK to combat growing NEET levels. Not only does a high number of NEETs signal a waste of young talent and potential, it is also creating a long term cost burden on our society. If young people aren’t fulfilling their potential, then neither is our economy; a sentiment echoed by many reports and Government advisors.


In the Netherlands only 4% of 18-14 year olds are NEET, and in Denmark that figure is only 7%[2]. This makes the UK’s almost 20% a cause for concern, and a central focus for the future of the economy. 

Creating opportunities for young people through apprenticeships is one of the most efficient ways to lower NEET levels and stimulate business within the economy. That’s why in recent years apprenticeships have come under fresh scrutiny, with new measures being implemented to make them fairer, more beneficial and more desirable to those seeking a practical, alternative route to University.   

Apprentices just got their biggest ever pay rise from the Government.

In a bid to continue the momentum around apprenticeships, the Government have increased the national minimum wage for young apprentices by £0.57 in October 2015 to £3.30[3]. This is the single largest pay increase for apprentices ever, and is a strong vote of confidence for school leavers who are looking to begin a career with a practical foundation.   Apprenticeships aren’t just for school-leavers, however. The number of apprenticeships that were started by people aged 25 and over remained higher than any other category in 2015, totalling 214,000[4]. That’s almost half of all apprenticeship starts. For these apprentices (aged 19 and up), the apprentice minimum wage of £3.30 will apply only for their first year, then the employer is required by law to pay them the National Minimum Wage for their age[5].   With increased popularity and government backing, apprenticeships are going to play a crucial part in developing the UK’s economy in the coming years, and for students of all walks of life they provide a valuable and practical route into a progressive career.

Since the introduction of top up fees in 2012, the average university student will graduate with £30k - £35k of student debt.[6]

This, combined with the abolition of maintenance grants in 2016/17, make apprenticeships an even safer bet for many young school leavers, setting them up with skills for life in a debt free way. 

A university degree racks up debt, with no guarantee of a job at the other end or any kind of real work experience. An apprenticeship, on the other hand, offers experience in abundance and will all but guarantee a route into a practical career with great prospects.

In the 2014/15 academic year, 499,900 students started an apprenticeship; that’s a 14% increase on the previous academic year[7].

In some industries, apprenticeships are the only route to go, but they’re slowly becoming the route of choice for many occupations. This new found popularity combined with an economic need to lower NEETs and compete abroad is why apprenticeships have found their way back into the spotlight and why Prime Minister, David Cameron, simply says: “Either apprenticeships or university for almost everybody.” [8]

How do apprenticeships work and what’s new for 2017/18?

How apprenticeships look today

The goal of all apprenticeships is the same; to build character, experience and overall employability in a given field. However, there many different types of apprenticeship programs to choose from.
To start an apprenticeship, you must be aged 16 or older and no longer in full time education. School leavers are entitled to register on an apprenticeship program providing their 16th birthday falls in the same academic year. There is no upper age limit on apprenticeships; they’re a cost effective way for people of all ages to get the necessary skills to excel in their field of choice, whether they’re fresh out of education or older and looking to retrain.


Apprenticeships cover a wide variety of sectors. It’s easy to think of sectors like hairdressing and beauty as the only supporter of apprenticeships but the truth is very different. A range of employers, from supermarkets and restaurants to nurses and accountants offer apprenticeship programs.
There are currently 3 levels of apprenticeship. Intermediate, Advanced and Higher, covering levels 2 to 5.

Intermediate Apprenticeship (Level 2; equivalent to five good GCSE passes)

This provides students with the skills and qualifications in their chosen career and allows entry to an Advanced Apprenticeship if desired. There are no real barriers to entry other than being a UK citizen (or resident for at least 3 years) and having the willingness, passion and enthusiasm to learn. 

Advanced Apprenticeship (Level 3; equivalent to two A-level passes):

To start this programme, students need 5 GCSEs (grade A*-C) or need to have an intermediate apprenticeship under their belt. This provides them with the skills and qualifications they’ll need to begin a career or move to a Higher Apprenticeship if desired.

Higher Apprenticeship (Level 4/5; equivalent to a Foundation Degree)

Students need to have a Level 3 qualification (A-Levels, Advanced Diploma or International Baccalaureate) or have completed an Advanced Apprenticeship in order to begin a Higher Apprenticeship. This is currently the highest level apprenticeship on offer and will prepare students for a solid start to their chosen career with usually fast upward progression.

New from 2015 - Degree Apprenticeship

This apprenticeship allows students to earn a degree level qualification in their chosen field while gaining valuable on the job experience. Students can choose from a range of sectors, from chartered surveying to aerospace engineering.
Different types of apprenticeships have different assessment methods, depending on their level and sector and the structure of the programme. Some may have on-going assessment while others may rely more heavily on exam style ‘end point’ assessments.
Apprenticeships have been a mainstay of the UK education system for the past 50 years and have been revised only 3 times during those 5 decades. Given the pivotal importance of the apprenticeship in shaping the lives of young people and its importance to the UK economy, more changes are inbound. These changes are designed to make the UK’s apprenticeship system more competitive and more in line with similar overseas programs.

What do you need to know about the changes set for 2017/18?

“We have already delivered 2.2 million new apprenticeships over the last five years. Over the next five years we will deliver three million more and ensure they deliver the skills employers need”

  • Conservative party manifesto, 2015

The future is looking bright for apprenticeships. The incoming changes are designed to make apprenticeships an even more viable alternative to university, stimulating the economy and getting people of all ages into work.  These changes are due to be enforced nationally at the beginning of the academic year 2017/18 and are already being trialled by over 100 ‘trailblazing’ employers.

Here is a summary of the main changes and the things you really need to know…

> How new apprenticeship students will be assessed

As of 2017/18 there will be a single Assessment Plan for each apprenticeship, keeping things simpler and more streamlined.  Independent assessors will be tasked with measuring a candidate’s progress along with the help of employers; this will make assessments more stringent but will also raise standards across the board, ensuring students are gaining the level of skill and insight they need.

Moving forward, all apprentices will have to pass at least one ‘end-point’ assessment before completing their apprenticeship. As well as this, a new grading system is also due to be implemented across many occupations, introducing an enhanced level of achievement and recognition for the graduating apprentice on the final apprenticeship certificate.  Inevitably this will stimulate more competition in the job marketplace. This removal of a binary ‘pass or fail’ system will mean that new apprentices will have a broader scope of ‘qualification’, but in certain occupations it will also mean that they will have to work hard to ensure a quality grade.

> How new apprenticeships will be taught

One of the most notable changes in how apprenticeships will be taught is a new focus on individual occupations rather than job ‘families’. This means that there will be less generic ‘filler’ material on a given course and everything taught will have a much more streamlined focus on the student’s chosen occupation.


Personal Learning and Thinking Skills (or PLTS) will be phased out and replaced with Professionalism & Values and Behaviours & Communication.
Currently, PLTS is a requirement within the apprenticeship programme; it teaches students real world skills and how to apply them and many employers require strong evidence of PLTS success, often including cross-checks and references. PLTS is about combining communication and critical thinking with the technical demands of a student’s chosen occupation, often at a general level.
‘Professionalism & Values’ and ‘Behaviours & Communication’ will replace PLTS in 2017/18. While these goals are much the same as before, the content will revolve more around a student’s chosen occupation rather than be taught at a general level.  Honing the communication and critical thinking skills of an apprentice to help them better relate to others in their chosen field is a dramatic and positive change to look forward to.

> Will apprenticeship funding change?

Under the current apprenticeship system, the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) determines which ‘providers’ of apprenticeship courses win contracts with employers.

The changes in 2017/18 will see employers gain an enhanced level of control over who provides the training programmes and materials to their apprentices. This should increase the level of competition in the apprenticeship market and giving employers this level of control over provision should drive up standards, enhance the credibility of apprenticeships and provide more relevance for employers and apprentices alike within their chosen sector.

What types of apprenticeship are available?

There is a perpetuating stigma that apprenticeships are only available in trade sectors, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The types of apprenticeships that are available are extremely wide ranging and if the plans for 2017/18 are effective, the choice is likely to grow even further.
Some of the sectors that attract apprentices and run successful apprenticeship programs include:

Agriculture, Horticulture and Animal Care
From floristry and environmental conservation to veterinary nursing and land-based service engineering, apprenticeships are one of the best ways to train for a successful career in horticulture and agriculture; the ‘on the job’ experience is invaluable to prospective employers.
Media and Marketing
This sector covers everything from film and fashion to digital marketing and mobile technology. For students looking to take their first steps into creative and digital media such as photography, design or testing and development, there’s no better choice than an apprenticeship.
Business, Administration and Law
One of the widest ranging sectors with an extremely diverse range of apprenticeship programmes; students can get advanced training in accounting, customer service, marketing communications, sales, team leadership and more.
Education and Training

Education and Training is about more than teachers and classrooms.  People of all ages across a wide range of careers need guidance, development and training. If a student wants a future where they help and support people, this sector is an ideal choice and there is always a constant demand for it.
Engineering, Manufacturing and Technology
For many, this sector is what apprenticeships are all about.  Everything from electrical engineering and food manufacturing to polymer processing and nuclear decommissioning - for students looking for a vocational, hands-on career there’s no better way to progress.
Health and Public Services
As our population ages, effective health, public services and care are increasingly important. Apprenticeships in this sector could lead to wide-ranging careers in dental nursing, social care, pharmacy work and community development.
Retail and Commercial Enterprise
Retail and commerce are the cornerstones of our economy. Apprenticeships in this sector are extremely wide ranging, from pubs and restaurants to hairdressing and beauty therapy.

Hairdressing is currently one of the most popular and lucrative apprenticeship frameworks for people aged 16 and up, with over 14,000 starts in 2015.[9]  Apprenticeships are the most preferred route of entry for employees into occupations like hairdressing.


Is an apprenticeship the right choice for you?

Which path we choose after school is one of the most defining an important decisions we’re likely to ever make. School leavers in 2017/18 are going to have more choice than ever before, so how should they weigh up their options?
University (via sixth form) has continued to be the most popular choice for school leavers at 16, with almost 500,000 university places awarded in 2015[10], but the introduction of top up fees has also triggered an increase in the number of apprenticeship applications.
Schools are also facing new legislation to raise the profile of apprenticeships as a practical and beneficial alternative to university. Schools will also be graded by OFSTED on the information and guidance they offer students moving forward, ensuring that they are aware of all options.
Apprenticeships are now recognised as an equal, if not better, alternative to university. The average starting salary for a university graduate is £14,734, whereas apprenticeships earn an average of £18,463 after completing their training.[11]
While university can provide important industry-based education, not all programmes do, and given that some occupations demand on-the-job experience it can be difficult for university graduates to find work as a result. Apprenticeships fill this very important gap, offering skills for life and often the promise of a great career.
Plans for the short term future are also an important consideration. A university degree will place financial strain on a student and also consume 3 years of their life, perhaps more, on a full-time basis. Depending on the occupation, an apprenticeship can provide a far more flexible and affordable solution; one that fits around an individual and his or her ambitions, while also providing the chance to gain valuable work experience and earn while they learn.  
Research has shown that qualified higher apprentices will enjoy increased earnings of £150,000 over a lifetime, with the added bonus of having no university debt.[12]
Making sure that all school leavers are better informed about the opportunities apprenticeships offer is a key Government strategy and one that also requires parents, guardians, schools, employers and all education providers to embrace more robustly than ever before. Starting an apprenticeship might well be one of the best decisions a school leaver could ever make.

[1] Office of National Statistics, 2015 Bulletin (
[2] Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) Report, 2013
[3] Government Press Release (
[4]  Report, House of Commons Library: ‘Apprenticeship Statistics England, 1996 - 2015’
[5] Minimum wage rates organised by age:
[6] Which? Report, Feb 2015
[7] Report, House of Commons Library: ‘Apprenticeship Statistics England, 1996 - 2015’
[8] CBI annual conference, 2015
[9] Report, Apprenticeship Statistics England, 1996 - 2015, Page 11
[10] The Guardian report, 2015 (
[11] Graduate poll of 2600 workers, 2015, Trinity Mirror PLC
[12] Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR), report for AAT - ‘The Value of Apprentices’

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