Remastering apprenticeships

Kirstie Donnelly reviews current thinking on apprenticeships and calls for greater recognition of their value

Apprenticeships have been around for centuries and they have changed beyond recognition over the years. In older times, an apprenticeship was a route to mastery of a trade and a lifelong career in their chosen field. Apprentices would have worked alongside their master, learning how to become a craftsman on the job until one day finally becoming the master themselves. The role of apprentice then was highly prized.

Unfortunately, despite still being a potential route to a great career, attitudes towards apprenticeships have changed in recent years. The recent DEMOS Commission Report on Apprenticeships, for which I was fortunate to be a commissioner, revealed that the majority of parents today see apprenticeships as good in theory but intended for less gifted students. Two thirds of those surveyed said they would not want their own child to take an apprenticeship. The report concluded that [pullquote]apprenticeships will have succeeded when most parents want their own child to consider doing an apprenticeship as opposed to going to university[/pullquote].

So how can we change this consensus of opinion and give apprenticeships back the high status they once enjoyed? For a start, we need to change the discourse. We need to ensure parents and learners understand that apprenticeships are changing. For example, many would be surprised to learn that more than half of all apprentices are women. Also, if parents understood that apprenticeships could land their son or daughter a top career in fields such as accountancy, engineering or a top consultancy house, without the debt of university, I am confident apprenticeships would then move higher up their list of options.

Strides also need to be made to make it a level playing field between vocational and academic education routes. The Skills Minister Nick Boles said his vision is to “get to a place where there’s a choice between two routes, both of which could take you as far as you want to go”. That’s all very well if learners understand that is the case but the DEMOS Commission also found that only a fifth of parents have been spoken to by their child’s school about apprenticeships – less than half the number who have been given information
about universities.

David Cameron himself suggested earlier in the year that the problem of apprenticeships not being promoted within the family is compounded by an educational establishment which is not geared towards directing young people to examine the idea of apprenticeships next to other options. This is hardly surprising when we consider that careers advice in the UK is patchy at best, non-existent at worst. The responsibility currently sits with teachers to provide careers advice who are already overstretched with other responsibilities, aren’t trained careers advisers and only have their own experiences to fall back on. And teachers, of course, are university educated. [pullquote]Without access to relevant and impartial careers advice, apprenticeships will never be the readily known option they should be[/pullquote].

However, it’s certainly not all doom and gloom. If all of the interest we’ve seen from the political parties is anything to go by, the time of the apprenticeship is well and truly here. But if we are all to capitalise on this opportunity, we need to ensure we get the approach right this time around. It seems that numbers have become the focus of political discourse around apprenticeships. The Conservative Party has said that it wants to get the number of apprenticeships to three million by 2020 and Labour has pledged that it wants to get the number of apprenticeships up to 80,000 per year. While we at City & Guilds are delighted at the commitment to apprenticeships by all the Parties, simply focusing on numbers is not the answer. In fact, it would be detrimental to the future of apprenticeships if that was the only focus. The quality of an apprenticeship, and by that I mean the learning and training, must be the driver. Surely if we get the quality right the numbers will follow anyway.

Building this quality was the focus of Remaking Apprenticeships, a recent piece of research written by renowned learning specialist, Bill Lucas, and commissioned by the City & Guilds Alliance. The report addresses these questions but also makes recommendations about how we can use the lessons of the past to reform and inform the future of apprenticeships.

In Remaking Apprenticeships, Lucas states that “unless apprenticeships as a concept are associated with quality, they will never become a pathway of choice”. So how exactly do we increase quality? Well it has to be a collective effort between government, employers and educators.

Government has already recognised this and is working on plans to give employers much more say in how the apprenticeship system will work. As part of this reform of the system, they have just announced their intention to give employers more choice in how they spend their funding entitlement from 2017. At City & Guilds, we support the principle of putting ‘the power of the purse’ into the hands of the employer to make the right buying decisions. But we believe more work needs to be done to ensure the new system will work and is representative of all employers, including small and medium sized businesses.

Currently, there is limited guidance available to inform employers’ understanding of how to manage an apprenticeship programme. This is especially the case for smaller businesses, many of whom are already expressing confusion and concern in their ability to access the new system let alone manage it. The role of training providers and colleges will still remain critical if we are to embed a successful and sustainable system. They play a vital role in supporting employers as well as delivering the quality training inputs required.  There is still much debate about the relationship between the length of an apprenticeship and quality. Currently, statutory requirements for employers in the UK are lower than our European counterparts. In the UK, an apprentice must spend just a year on an apprenticeship. The Department for Business Innovation and Skills has said it wants to see a “radical reform programme that will make apprenticeships in England the best in the world”. So practically what needs to be done?

Remaking Apprenticeships focuses on how we can embed quality and teaching back into apprenticeships so we create a system which rivals any in the world. It identifies what good looks like by showing six key outcomes that a good apprenticeship should bestow on the learner:

1 Routine expertise – reliable and repeatable skill in an occupation.

2 Resourcefulness – the capacity to think and act in new situations.

3 Craftsmanship – pride and an ethic of excellence.

4 Functional literacy in the key areas of literacy, numeracy, digital and graphical.

5 Business-like attitudes – customer and client-focused, entrepreneurial and aware of value for money.

6 Wider skills for growth – the disposition and wider skills needed for a lifetime of learning and change.


Of course, each of these comes with its own challenges which the report also highlights. Chief among most of them is the ability of the expert in the business to be a good teacher, at the same time as understanding and managing the apprenticeship within their organisation. Similarly, the needs of the apprentice as a learner need to be balanced with the requirement for them to be a productive worker during the times that they engage in on-the-job learning. Therefore, more can be done to assist the employer and apprentice to make the most of the placement in a practical sense, as well as greater understanding around the basics of the arrangement and producing a quality apprentice.

We can also see from these outcomes that they cover a wider spectrum for the apprentice: from gaining a set of key skills or craft, to broader attributes such as the ability to be client-focused and to present a positive profile of their organisation externally.

In a follow-up commentary piece on his report in the TES,1 Lucas argues there is often too much focus on the first, fourth and fifth of these central outcomes because they are easier to teach and assess. However, it is often the other three outcomes that make an apprenticeship distinctive, and which can help better assess its quality.

Since the publication of the report, it’s encouraging to note that the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) is making statements about the way forward that support the themes raised in the research findings. A Government spokesman recently said “it’s not just about the numbers. The Government is reforming the apprenticeship system to drive up quality, ensuring that apprenticeships give young people the training and experience they need for a successful career”.

BIS backs the call that learners must demand high quality pedagogy which is welcome but now is the time for action. Achieving this places a certain degree of responsibility on the apprentice to to demand high quality teaching. But part of winning this battle will be to challenge the perception of apprenticeships amongst young people, schools, families and government. If we are to re-master the art of apprenticeships over the next decade, we all really must remake our understanding of them first.

A fully referenced version is available on request.


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