Demos Daily: The Commission on Apprenticeships


The government is now supporting the wages of employees of private companies in a way that has never been seen before. While millions have been furloughed, there is also a huge amount of uncertainty over the future of these jobs, and of job creation when companies try to restart. One of the most vulnerable categories of jobs are apprenticeships. Many school leavers hoping to start an apprenticeship have found their apprenticeship delayed or even cancelled as companies face uncertainty, while apprenticeships are also among the most at risk jobs if companies need to downsize. 

Apprenticeships are now an important route for young people to gain qualifications, and are continuing to grow in popularity. We shouldn’t let the shutdown slow down this progress. In 2015 Demos hosted The Commission on Apprenticeships, which worked with high profile individuals to set out how the government can further embed apprenticeships in the route for young people to get into work. 

You can read the full report here.


Apprenticeships policy will have succeeded when most parents want their own children to consider choosing an apprenticeship. This is the acid test of their worth. It would signal that apprenticeships have achieved both status in society and currency in the labour market. We are not there yet. New polling commissioned for this report shows that most parents think that apprenticeships are valuable, but not for their own children; that apprenticeships are more suitable for low achievers than high achievers; and that apprenticeships help produce steady jobs, but are not a route to the top. Despite the insistence of
politicians from all parties that technical and vocational learning must achieve ‘parity of esteem’, we remain a long way from achieving it.

These attitudes are no accident. They are the product of institutional structures that have shaped the British education system and labour market for many years. They begin with a schooling system that has prioritised academic work over technical and vocational learning, from the options available to young people to the attitudes and advice of teachers.

Under successive governments, serious practical and technical learning has been absent from most people’s education from an early age. This has framed the choice to pursue technical education as being a second-best option, for those not likely to succeed in academic study, rather than a positive choice in its own right. This frame has been reinforced by teachers who, overwhelmingly, pursued academic routes themselves and have felt more comfortable advising pupils and parents about which university to choose than suggesting they consider technical and vocational options.

What has begun at school has been perpetuated in post-compulsory education and the labour market itself. One way of illustrating this is to consider the divide between the professions and other vocations. The professions – such as medicine, accounting or the law – have benefited from clear routes to professional qualification, with high quality training on and off the job, and institutional structures that reinforce professional identity and social status. Anyone wishing to become a doctor has understood exactly how to get there and, perhaps most importantly, known that they cannot practise as a doctor without that training, and few have doubted the quality of training they would receive along the way.

The same has not always been true for non-professional vocational roles. In many of the trades, routes to qualification and progression have often been opaque, training has varied far more in quality and the institutional architecture surrounding particular occupations has been weaker. Whereas professional bodies like the British Medical Association have enjoyed power and influence, setting standards, encouraging training and promoting the profession itself, the same cannot be said for many vocations outside of the professions.

This undervaluing of technical work and learning is not inevitable and it can be changed. In other countries apprenticeships are popular options with both employers and individuals, associated with the pursuit of excellence. In Germany and Switzerland, for example, more than half of employers offer apprenticeships, compared with around 15 per cent in the UK.1 In these countries, apprenticeships are understood by potential apprentices as being an investment in their future, by employers as a means of achieving higher productivity, and by wider society as valuable for young people. Our task as a nation is to emulate this.

The good news is that there is growing support for this view of apprenticeships from across the political spectrum. There has been a successful drive to increase apprenticeship numbers under successive governments, with apprenticeship starts in England increasing from around 70,000 in 1996–97 to 440,400 in 2013/14.2 The apprenticeships budget has increased steadily, supporting this growth for three parliaments in a row.3 Each of the three main political parties has set ambitious targets concerning the quality and quantity of apprenticeships in coming years.

This emerging consensus is based on evidence demonstrating that apprenticeships can enhance productivity, boosting the earning power of apprenticeships and growth in the wider economy: 72 per cent of businesses report improved productivity as a result of employing an apprentice, with the average apprenticeship increasing business productivity by £214 a week.4 Apprentices can expect to earn around 18 per cent more following an advanced apprenticeship than they would have done without it.5 Wider society benefits not just through higher tax receipts as profits and wages rise, but also through the creation of a more highly skilled workforce for the future. The National Audit Office finds that the economic returns to apprenticeships are around £18 per pound of government funding.6


The Commission on Apprenticeships

This Commission reflects that potential for cross party consensus and cooperation. It has representatives from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, and a wealth of expertise from beyond politics. The full list of commissioners is set out below. The remit of the Commission, for which Demos acted as the secretariat, was to explore how to maximise the power and prestige of apprenticeships in England. The Commission began with a written call for evidence,
which more than 50 separate organisations responded to. It continued with three days of oral evidence sessions, involving employers, training providers and apprentices. These discussions were followed up by case study visits to five apprenticeship schemes and, finally, a poll of 1,000 parents of 15–16-year-olds.

The Commission has adopted the construction industry as its prime case study, but has taken evidence and examined schemes from a range of sectors, with a view to making recommendations for apprenticeships policy at the national level.

Members of the Commission on Apprenticeships


Lord Maurice Glasman, Labour peer
Robert Halfon MP, MP for Harlow


Mike Cherry, Federation of Small Businesses
Kirstie Donnelly, City & Guilds
Steve Hindley, Midas Group
Nazir Huseinmiya, Construction Apprentice
Steve Radley, Construction Industry Training Board
Stewart Segal, Association of Employment and
Learning Providers
Baroness Margaret Sharp, House of Lords
Dr Hilary Steedman, London School of Economics
Ray Wilson, Carillion Training Services


Alice Meaning, Demos
Duncan O’Leary, Demos
Ian Wybron, Demos


1 Boston Consulting Group, Real Apprenticeships: Creating a revolution in English skills, Sutton Trust, Oct 2013, (accessed 25 Feb 2015); UKCES, Employer Perspectives Survey 2014: UK results, UK Commission for Employment and Skills, 2014,
full_V2.pdf (accessed 20 Feb 2015).

2 JM Davies, ‘Apprenticeship statistics’, Commons Library Standard Note SN06113, House of Commons, 13 Feb 2015, (accessed 20 Feb 2015).

3 JM Davies, ‘Apprenticeships policy’, Commons Library Standard Note SN04052, House of Commons, 13 Feb 2015, 20 Feb 2015).

4 Apprenticeships, ‘About apprenticeships’, nd,
(accessed 20 Feb 2015).

5 NAO, Adult Apprenticeships: Estimating economic benefits from apprenticeships, National Audit Office, Dept for Business, Innovation & Skills, Skills Funding Agency and National Apprenticeship Service, 2012, (accessed 20 Feb 2015).

6 Ibid.