APPRENTICESHIP starts have fallen by more than 40 per cent in St Helens over the past five years, new figures have revealed.

The data, which has been published by the Department for Education (DfE), show that in 2019-20 there were 1,310 apprenticeship starts in St Helens, down from 1,590 the previous year and down from 2,260 in 2014-15.

In St Helens South and Whiston, there were 790 apprenticeship starts in 2019-20 – 200 fewer than the previous year and down from 1,330 in 2014-15.

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Apprenticeship starts in St Helens North have nearly halved over the last five years, falling from 1,260 in 2014-15 to just 690 in 2019-20. 

The drop in St Helens North was ten per cent sharper than in England and around five per cent greater than in the North West over the same five-year period, highlighting inequalities regionally and nationally. 

Conor McGinn, Labour MP for St Helens North, said the statistics make it clear that successive Conservative administrations have let St Helens down.

“It is shocking to see apprenticeship starts in St Helens North fall by nearly half over the last five years,” Mr McGinn said.

“As we face up to a growing jobs crisis, young people in our borough are being unfairly punished for years of failed Tory policies, missed targets and broken promises, and they deserve better. 

“The government must act swiftly to boost apprenticeship numbers and properly support the likes of St Helens College, the Chamber of Commerce and businesses who facilitate them locally.” 

St Helens Star: St Helens North MP Conor McGinnSt Helens North MP Conor McGinn

The data shows apprenticeship starts for St Helens North in 2019-20 were down a fifth on last year’s figures.

This is likely a likely knock-on effect of the coronavirus pandemic, which has impacted many firms’ ability to hire apprentices.

Tracy Mawson, chief executive at St Helens Chamber, said 2020 has been “exceptionally difficult” for apprenticeships.

She said: “The 2017 apprenticeship reforms were a massive shake-up for the sector, resulting in a number of local and national providers missing out on government contracts to deliver apprenticeships.

“At St Helens Chamber we have continued to deliver high quality apprenticeships both to young people starting their careers and to older people already in employment, however we have seen a drop in demand.

“This year has been exceptionally difficult for apprenticeships, whilst we have seen businesses showing incredible support for the apprentices already working with them, the lockdowns and prevalence of home working has meant that for many firms hiring new apprentices this year has been too difficult.”

Ms Mawson has called on the government to extend its financial incentives to support them to hire new apprentices.

The incentives were originally due to end on January 31, but a two-month extension was announced in the Chancellor’s Spending Review last week.

However, St Helens Chamber’s chief executive does not believe this goes far enough.

St Helens Star: Tracy Mawson, chief executive of St Helens ChamberTracy Mawson, chief executive of St Helens Chamber

Ms Mawson said: “The financial incentives provided by government go some way towards helping, but these will need to be extended much further than the proposed March cut off to have the intended impact.

“There is also a lot more to do on reassuring young people, parents and schools that apprenticeships are a credible alternative to A-levels or other traditional FE courses. Apprenticeships provide a good, solid education and fantastic employment opportunities with excellent progression routes.

“Despite the dip in numbers a positive outcome of the reforms is a positive change in the way apprenticeships are delivered and the quality of the learning. At the Chamber we are working hard to get this message out alongside colleagues at St Helens College, and we will hopefully see an increase in take up next year.”

The DfE said apprenticeships are now longer, higher-quality and include more off-the-job training, thanks to the reforms introduced by the government.

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A DfE spokesman said: “Apprenticeships will continue to play a vital role in growing our economy and as we build back better after the pandemic, making sure people get the skills they need to get ahead and businesses have the talented workforce they need.

“We are providing £2,000 to employers for each new apprentice they hire aged under 25 and a £1,500 payment for each new apprentice they hire aged 25 and over to help businesses create more opportunities.

“We are also investing £111 million this year to triple the number of traineeships available across England – the largest-ever expansion of traineeships – to help make sure more 16-24-year-olds have the skills, experience  and confidence they need to enter the world of work.”