The academic pathway from GCSEs to A-levels to an undergraduate degree at university is a well-trodden and well-understood route that attracts tens of thousands of young people in England every year. However, while this pathway receives considerable political and media interest, just 37 per cent of young people take three A-levels in their final years at school or college. In other words, over six in ten young people are not on a solely academic path. Even so, ever since then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s infamous speech in 1999 that set a target of 50 per cent of young people entering Higher Education (HE), the academic pathway has been placed on a pedestal above all else.

The statistics lay bare the impact of so many young people being badly neglected. In 2022, 12.3 per cent of young people aged 16-24 in England were ‘Not in Education, Employment and Training’ (NEET) – the same proportion as when Tony Blair gave his aforementioned speech. Meanwhile, just 2.8 per cent of 16-year-olds were on an apprenticeship in 2022 – down from 7.9 per cent in 1999. Even if you include 19 to 24-year-olds, the volume of young people starting an apprenticeship has not increased in 20 years. To unearth the root causes of these concerning outcomes, this report investigates why the first few rungs on the ‘ladder of opportunity’ are missing for so many young people who do not follow the academic path.

Bringing young people closer to employers

Surveys of employers often report that they are hesitant to recruit 16 to 18-year-olds due to concerns that they may lack ‘soft skills’, motivation or the right attitudes. While this is understandable from an employer’s perspective, it illustrates the importance of ensuring that young people who are not on an academic path can acquire and utilise these skills and attributes before they leave school or college. Two initiatives under the last Labour government proved remarkably successful in this regard.

The ‘Young Apprenticeships’ (YA) programme for 14 to 16-year-olds offered at least 50 days of workplace experience over two years (typically two days per week) alongside a Level 2 vocational qualification in the relevant industry sector. 95 per cent of YA participants progressed onto Further Education / training, with 19 per cent moving onto an apprenticeship. An evaluation by Ofsted found that pupils were “enthusiastic, well-motivated and well-behaved” and they “spoke highly of the provision which they enjoyed a great deal” and meant they were “treated more like adults”. Teachers also noted that “young apprentices took more responsibility for their own learning than their peers in school”. Employers were equally impressed, and felt the programme helped pupils link “their school studies to the world of work” and “developed skills and attributes which made them more employable” while also gaining detailed insights into particular jobs and sectors.

It is not just spending time in the workplace that can help prepare young people to get onto the ladder of opportunity. The ‘Increased Flexibility Programme’ (IFP) in the 2000s, which offered vocational learning (often at local colleges) alongside academic subjects at school, was not only popular but also improved pupils’ “attitudes, behaviour and social skills”. Separate reviews from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and Ofsted reported that pupils progressed at least as well in their IFP qualifications as they did in their school subjects, if not better. Both teachers and pupils agreed that the IFP had led to “improved confidence” and “greater maturity” among participating pupils and helped them “engage (and in some cases re-engage) into learning.”

The demise of these programmes means that the non-academic courses before the age of 16 are now severely restricted irrespective of a pupils’ interests and abilities. The Department for Education (DfE) has approved 76 ‘Technical Awards’ that provide 14 to 16-year-olds with “applied knowledge and practical skills”, but this compares to 324 academic qualifications. The sparsity of Technical Awards helps explain why they attracted just over 400,000 exam entries in 2022 compared to 5.2 million GCSE entries. The way that the performance of schools is measured by the DfE also sends out a strong signal – most notably through the ‘EBacc’ and ‘Progress 8’ – that technical and vocational subjects are second class options relative to GCSEs.

For many years, the mantra in government has been that there should be no ‘specialisation’ before the age of 16, meaning that almost all young people are effectively pushed through the academic pathway. Even after age 16, technical and vocational education is in a worrying state. The DfE’s new ‘T-level’ qualifications, launched in 2020, were supposed to bring about a renaissance in high-quality technical education but have fallen flat. Recent reports by Ofsted and the Education Select Committee in Parliament have delivered damning verdicts on the design and implementation of T-levels and described how many warning signs continue to be ignored by ministers. These include the lack of interest among employers to offer work placements (which are compulsory for all T-level students), the alarmingly high drop-out rates and the unmanageable volume of content in a single T-level course (equivalent to three A-levels). Worse still, many students have been misled about the prospect of attending university after completing their T-level, as some universities have refused to accept it as a valid entry qualification. To compound this, only 14 per cent of learners who were entered onto a ‘transition year’ as they were not initially ready to begin a T-level actually progressed onto the T-level afterwards. In short, T-levels have been badly mis-sold to young people.

While T-levels struggle, other programmes aimed at helping those aged 16 and over move into employment have been quietly culled. Traineeships were created in 2014 to offer 16 to 24-year-olds the chance to develop their skills and gain experience in the workplace. Although traineeships did not offer a wage or bursary, 92 per cent of trainees reported that they would recommend it to others. Moreover, a DfE evaluation showed that 75 per cent of trainees moved into further education, an apprenticeship or employment within 12 months of starting a traineeship. This figure is particularly laudable as almost half of trainees had no GCSE passes at A*-C (compared to 18 per cent among non-trainees) and trainees were also 22 percentage points more likely to have Special Educational Needs as well as having a poorer school attendance record and experiencing more exclusions. In other words, scrapping the traineeships programme has removed a vital early rung on the ladder of opportunity.

Another serious obstacle to climbing the ladder of opportunity is the English and maths requirements attached to many courses. Improving the literacy and numeracy skills of young people is essential, but the practical realities of delivering this objective have too often been ignored. Forcing young people who fail their GCSE English and maths to resit these exams has been labelled as ‘demotivating’ and ‘demoralising’. That the DfE only allows students to take alternatives to GCSEs such as ‘Functional Skills’ courses after they have already failed their GCSE exams highlights the incoherence of the current approach. Similarly, the English and maths expectations for many apprenticeships creates a strong disincentive for employers and training providers to recruit young people who do not already meet the minimum requirements – which disproportionately affects the most disadvantaged learners. The relevance of academic-style English and maths qualifications in the workplace is also questionable, as even apprentice chefs must demonstrate that they can use coordinates, interpret scatter diagrams, recognise correlations and draw 3-D shapes (including elevations).

Bringing employers closer to young people

Apprenticeships have traditionally been a crucial bridge between education and employment for many young people, yet recent government policy has led to a significant deterioration in the quality and quantity of apprenticeships suitable for those leaving school or college. The design of the apprenticeship levy – which began operating in 2017 – has actively encouraged employers to send existing and senior workers on costly management training and professional development courses (including MBAs) rather than recruiting younger workers. The Level 7 ‘Accountancy or Taxation Professional’ apprenticeship (equivalent to a Masters degree) is the most expensive apprenticeship in England by some distance, having consumed almost £1 billion of apprenticeship levy funding since 2017 to train tax advisors, accountants, auditors and financial analysts, but such courses have little or nothing to do with helping inexperienced young people who are trying to get onto the career ladder. Indeed, only 26 per cent of learners who started an apprenticeship in 2021/22 were on entry-level apprenticeships – down from 53 per cent in 2016/17 before the levy was introduced. What’s more, over half of ‘apprentices’ are now aged 25 or over, thus undermining the importance of apprenticeships as a valuable route for school and college leavers.

As the apprenticeship system drifts away from supporting young people, the Government has occasionally used financial incentives to try to create more job opportunities. These incentives tend to work best when targeted at smaller employers and young people facing the most significant barriers to work. During the pandemic, ‘Kickstart’ offered employers a bursary equivalent to six months of the National Minimum Wage (NMW) for 25 hours a week if they recruited a young person who was claiming Universal Credit. 75 per cent of Kickstart participants were found to be in education, employment or training after 10 months, with the greatest impact being felt on young people’s confidence (generally and professionally) and teamwork skills. In addition, 73 per cent of employers were satisfied with their experience of Kickstart, even though many were new to this sort of scheme.

Even so, reducing the cost of recruiting young people is only likely to be part of the answer. Building up employers’ training capacity and capabilities can also help them recruit and develop younger workers. International evidence shows that collaborative activities including risk-pooling, information-sharing and economies of scale can help employers access training and development opportunities that they would not have otherwise been able to reach. Publicly-funded ‘training networks’ for SMEs can lower the cost of recruitment and training as well as helping smaller employers develop training plans and human resources programmes. Government-funded initiatives can play a role too. For example, ‘Be the Business’ provides free business mentors and online support to SMEs to help them identify opportunities for improvement and boosting their productivity. That said, employer collaborations appear to be best maintained at a local and regional level rather than relying on the whims of central government when seeking to develop human capital.


Young people who do not follow an academic pathway through and beyond secondary education deserve to be offered high-quality and respected courses and qualifications just as much as their academic counterparts. Regrettably, the instability and confusion created by government in recent years has been all too apparent, with apprenticeships drifting away from young people, various programmes coming and going, and research evidence frequently being ignored in favour of ideology. Not only has this instability been detrimental for young people, but employers will inevitably be less likely to engage with (and recruit) younger and less experienced workers if the education and skills system is being constantly redesigned.

A high-performing and respected HE sector is essential in our modern economy, but too little attention has been paid by policymakers to those young people who, for whatever reason, feel that university and other forms of HE are not right for them. This report shows how and why the first rungs on the ‘ladder of opportunity’ are now broken for many young people who do not follow an academic path, but this cannot be addressed unless government takes an evidence-led approach that allows every young person to find a suitable pathway that matches their skills and talents. To deliver this, progress must be made on two fronts. First, there is an urgent need to build better pipelines into good-quality jobs for everyone who chooses to seek employment and training after leaving school or college. Second, government must de-risk recruiting young people to the point where it becomes a rational business decision for employers rather than relying on a handful of willing organisations. If these two objectives are met, it would open more doors for young people without closing off any existing options – thus ensuring that the ladder of opportunity becomes a reality for all young people, not just those who are following an academic route through our education system.


Bringing young people closer to employers

  • RECOMMENDATION 1: To promote the supply of entry-level opportunities and clear progression routes into genuine high-quality apprenticeships, a redesigned ‘traineeships’ programme should be offered to 16 to 24-year-olds. A bursary of £100 a week should also be given for trainees to support them with expenses such as food and transport.
  • RECOMMENDATION 2: To enhance the employability skills of younger learners before they leave school, the Department for Education should create a new programme called ‘Young Traineeships’ for 14 to 16-year-olds. This will provide an extended work placement of 50 days over two years with a local employer during Key Stage 4 (approximately one day a week), the completion of which would be equivalent to a ‘pass’ (Grade 4) in a GCSE subject.
  • RECOMMENDATION 3: To ensure that young people who do not want to follow an academic pathway are recognised for their achievements at school, the EBacc measure of secondary school performance should be withdrawn with immediate effect and the main ‘Progress 8’ measure should be reformed so that pupils can choose any subjects (including technical courses) alongside English, maths and science.
  • RECOMMENDATION 4: To make T-levels a more viable proposition for learners and employers, an independent review should be urgently conducted into these qualifications. The review should consider, among other options, reducing the size of T-levels, splitting the 45-day work placement into smaller placements and redesigning the ‘foundation year’.
  • RECOMMENDATION 5: The Government should allow exam boards to create new English and maths qualifications that are specific to each of the 15 technical education routes that encompass both classroom-based courses and apprenticeships (e.g. Construction; Care Services; Transport and Logistics). The new qualifications will teach the skills and knowledge required to succeed in each technical pathway rather than offering generic curricula.

 Bringing employers closer to young people

  • RECOMMENDATION 6: To ensure that apprenticeships remain focused on young people who have chosen not to follow an academic pathway, learners who are already qualified at or above Level 6 (equivalent to a full undergraduate degree) should no longer be eligible to start a levy-funded apprenticeship.
  • RECOMMENDATION 7: To prioritise the interests of young people but without excluding older learners from starting an apprenticeship, consideration should be given to preventing employers from accessing further levy funding if they have trained more apprentices aged 25+ than those aged 16-24.
  • RECOMMENDATION 8: To generate more job openings for young people from the least privileged backgrounds, the Government should reinstate a more targeted version of the ‘Kickstart’ programme that offered subsidies to employers for creating new jobs.
  • RECOMMENDATION 9: To build capacity among employers to recruit and support young people, financial incentives of up to £5,000 should be available to organisations offering apprenticeships, traineeships and T Level placements.
  • RECOMMENDATION 10: To ensure that new non-apprenticeship opportunities for young people are sustainable over time, the Government should focus on funding and promoting local partnerships and collaborations between employers through, for example, creating ‘training networks’.