If you’re wondering how to improve your apprenticeship retention rates, you’re not alone. Dropout rates are the most persistent problem facing the apprenticeship sector today. Indeed, 35% of all apprentices drop out. Regardless of specialism, dropout rates are one of the most significant barriers to achievement.  

In this article, we’ll have a look at some of the things that may cause dropout and what you can do to improve apprenticeship retention rates. 


What are the underlying causes behind apprentice dropout?  

Understanding the causes of dropout can go a long way to preventing this outcome, and in this endeavour data is your best tool.

The more you understand your learners, the more you can support their needs from day one and provide more personalised learning plans.

We want to outline some of the underlying factors that can impact dropout.


Look out for hidden needs 

Historically, there has been a one-size-fits-all approach to education, and learning support was seen as an extra. But many people have learning needs which can go undetected well into adulthood.  

We know that 80 percent of people with dyslexia leave school without a diagnosis, which creates unintentional barriers within further education.  

Over the last few years, we have assessed over 100,000 learners, and our data shows that 1 in 3 apprentices is neurodiverse in a way that requires support. And when we compare our cognitive assessment data to the Government’s deprivation indices, learners who match on our assessment and qualify for support are more likely to come from postcodes with higher Education, Skills and Training deprivation. 

This means that there is a higher risk of dropout for already disadvantaged learners if they don’t receive the support that they need.  


Insufficient support 

In 2019, Department for Education published a qualitative research report on reasons for non-completion of apprenticeships, and found that “Non-completers often challenged the level of support they received and how responsive tutors were.” 

In addition to hidden needs, many learners never receive a formal diagnosis. Relying on learners to self-disclose before offering support is not a strategy. 

Providing appropriate and personalised support is especially important now, amidst a global health crisis that affects every learner on a different scale. 


The effect of the pandemic  

“We’re not all in the same boat. We are in the same storm.” 

This quote, tweeted during lockdown in 2020, couldn’t sum up our experiences of the pandemic better. The impact of COVID-19 has been felt unequally across society, affecting some more than others. The same will be true for your learners.  

Providers have had to adapt to a new model of learning, and so have learners. Some of them went along without any issue, but that’s not the case for everyone. There are so many things that come into play, from having the right tools, to the caring responsibilities of each learner. 

Beej Kaczmarczyk, Director at Learning Curve Group shared his thoughts on the subject last November in The Quality Series. “Sometimes you thought giving everyone a laptop and the ability to get on Wi-Fi was going to solve the problem, but it didn’t do it for everyone.” 

We’ve all experienced the pandemic differently, and it’s something we need to remember when talking to learners. Are they anxious to return to face-to-face learning? Do they need a phased return because they don’t feel ready to be back yet? How have they been affected and what can we do to support them? 

We may have been in the same storm, but some of us were on yachts and some on rowing boats. Acknowledging that and adjusting to each learner’s experience can lead to them feeling more supported and avoiding the risk of dropout.  

“It’s like education, like going for an apprenticeship or the education system, it’s different for all of us. We’re all in different boats.” Marina Gaze, former Deputy Director of FE & Skills in The Quality Series. 


How can we improve apprentice retention?  

The next question you will obviously ask yourself is ‘how can I prevent dropout?

Early intervention is key. You don’t want to want to wait until a learner is struggling to offer support.

To tackle dropout effectively you need a combination of the correct tools and clued up staff, but let’s talk through some of the key points to help you improve retention rates.


1.   Assess all learners for learning needs 

Personalised support can be vital to a learner’s success. But the thing is, you can’t support needs you don’t identify. 

Initial assessment of learning needs is an essential part of the learning journey. That’s why “identify” is the first stage of the Quality Assurance Framework. 

Assessing all learners on enrolment gives everyone a clear starting point as required by the Education Inspection Framework (EIF). Initial needs assessment allows organisations to access additional funding to support learners and implement reasonable adjustments throughout learning, not just at end-point assessment. 

With the additional knowledge about their cognition, learners will feel more confident and empowered in their course and at work, too. And you can put a personalised learning plan in place from the start to help every learner succeed in their apprenticeship. 

Assessing all learners at the start ensures an inclusive process and more engaged learners, which can lead to increased retention rates. 


2.   Communicate with employers 

Any support that the learner receives from the provider should be available at work and at end-point assessment too. 

The 2019 report from the Department for Education on reasons for non-completion of apprenticeships mentioned that “apprentices generally felt it was difficult to voice concerns to their employers and to ask for extra time – particularly in busy work places.” 

It is not mandatory for the learner to share their support needs with the employer. However, you can talk to the learner about it and offer to act as a liaison with their line manager, helping them start a conversation. 

It makes a huge difference to retention when learners have support to navigate challenges from both the provider and employer and have coordinated reasonable adjustments in both places.  


3.   Train your staff 

Staff and tutors are essential to the learner journey, so we need to ensure they are appropriately trained and can offer adequate support to learners who need it. 

Knowing where to start and getting sector-appropriate advice can be difficult, but we’ve worked alongside the NCFE to create the Neurodiversity Masterclass, a free accredited qualification in neurodiversity and learner support. 

In the masterclass, Marina Gaze, former FE & Skills Director, and Karl Bentley, Senior Manager at RSM UK and ESFA auditor shared practical tips to help staff adapt to meet the individual needs of their learners, and ultimately increase inclusivity and outcomes for all. 

If multiple people in your organisation complete the Neurodiversity Masterclass, you will receive a Neurodiversity Champion statement that can be added to your organisation’s existing Equality, Diversity and Inclusion statement. 


4.   Personalised support is linked to increased confidence and motivation 

The concept of confidence can have a big impact on learner success. Addressing and supporting confidence around learning should be embedded into our thinking around learner support and measuring its impact. 

New research from Cognassist has found that apprentices who engage with support tailored to their learning needs increase in both confidence and motivation to learn over time. 

Learners with identified learning needs initially report a lower level of confidence, which can impact their course, their experience and future outcomes. 

“Low self-esteem is widely recognised as a factor that is associated with poor educational attainment and non-participation in education and training.” (NIACE, 2005) 

The research found that apprentices who received support over the three-month period increased in confidence by 14% on average and their motivation to learn increased by 16% on average.  

These findings are especially important because, as previous scientific research has revealed, “Measures of confidence have the highest correlation with academic achievement.” (Non-cognitive Psychological Processes and Academic Achievement, 2016). 


5.   A data-driven approach to reducing dropout 

In partnership with Realise, one of the largest apprenticeship providers in England, we asked ourselves: What if we could prevent dropout? 

Looking at historical data provided by Realise, Cognassist used internal statistical analysis to predict dropout rates and identify key factors that can affect dropout. Cognassist used regression-based statistical analysis on a sample of 223 Realise learners. 

Although this work is preliminary, Cognassist was able to predict which learners were at a higher risk of dropping out with good accuracy. Learning difficulties, identified in a cognitive assessment, were significant risk factors for learners dropping out. The research also found that this risk may be increased by other factors relating to the circumstances of the learner and their area of study. 


Our data also matches the National Achievement Rates Tables, which shows that learners with identified learning difficulties and disabilities are more likely to dropout of their apprenticeship.

We must do more for learners who are likely to experience greater barriers in education. 

And to gain tips on how to prevent your apprentices dropping out, you can download our free handbook. 

Dropout handbook

Dropout rates are the most persistent problem facing the apprenticeship sector today.

In this handbook, we share 5 crucial tips for preventing your apprentices dropping out.

To increase retention and to transform learning outcomes for all your apprentices.

Image: How prevent your apprentices dropping out - cover