The Federation of Small Businesses has called on newly appointed education minister Gavin Williamson to put apprenticeships at the top of his list of priorities.

The FSB says the number of apprenticeships in smaller firms has declined.

It says throughout the 2018/19 academic year, new apprenticeship starts were only marginally up (6.6 per cent) on the same period for the previous year, but this compares to a 30 per cent fall from the year before the apprenticeship levy was introduced.

FSB national chairman Mike Cherry said: “As more large businesses use up their levy funds, the apprenticeship funding system will become unable to cope with the demand.

“Apprenticeship funding needs to be urgently shored up to ensure that small firms are still able to take on apprentices and are not excluded from the system.

"The complexities and challenges in the system need to be addressed as well.

"Despite the increase in the uptake this academic year, progress remains sluggish and Level 2 apprenticeships are in decline.

“The new education secretary must use this moment to address the issues that the apprenticeship system and small businesses face.

"Unless urgent action is taken now, many small firms will simply be unable to afford to take on an apprentice, which will only see numbers fall even further.

“If we are to address the persistent skills shortages and gaps that are damaging growth and productivity, then we must prevent apprenticeships becoming an opportunity only open to those who can afford it.”