Dangerous times for the Apprenticeship programme

12 March 2015

There are many employers offering great Apprenticeships for people who will get a great start to their career, with the support they need to progress to better jobs and to become lifelong learners. Those are the employers who also benefit from great staff who will help improve productivity and business success. And then there are others where the experience of the apprentice is not so good.

This reality doesn’t seem to matter to the politicians from across the parties who are wedded to supporting Apprenticeships. Perhaps they have been seduced by the many excellent examples of how Apprenticeships do support good outcomes. But I am worried that the support for the programme is unrealistic. The claims for what ‘more apprentices’ will deliver is long: improved productivity, reduced youth unemployment, greater social mobility, business success, economic growth and so on. For all of these, apprentices do contribute, but the programme will not solve them on its own and yet the programme seems to be the only investment in skills which is being prioritised outside of higher education.

For all of us who worry about inclusive growth, I think there are three areas where we should focus our thoughts and efforts:

  1. Defining what Apprenticeships deliver and how they fit with other training and education.
  2. Quality and the success measures for the programme.
  3. Access to Apprenticeships and inequalities.

So what is an Apprenticeship? I like the short definition in the Remaking Apprenticeships report from City & Guilds: an Apprenticeship is a job with significant inbuilt learning designed to prepare the apprentice for future employment, employability and active citizenship of a high quality. There is a lot in there worth unpacking. The focus on learning both formally and informally, the focus on the outcomes of a job and a career and the clear return on the investment for the Government of supporting people to be active citizens. I’d like to see all Apprenticeships being about this, supporting people to aspire and be ambitious about what they can achieve, how far they can go. I think that’s what employers want from their employees.

So if that’s what we want Apprenticeships to be about, how does the quality measure up? Well, I’m clear that some employers offer this to a very high quality and have senior staff who have had good careers after starting out as an apprentice. But there is a lot of evidence that the experience for too many is not good enough. For instance a recent survey found that a third of those on the Apprenticeship programme didn’t even know they were an apprentice. Not a great measure of quality and there are other signs such as declining success rates and a quarter of 16-18 year old apprentices paid below the minimum wage.

The big problem though is that we don’t know enough about the experience of apprentices (where is their voice in the reforms?) nor about the outcomes of the programme. The measures of success used do not include key outcomes such as how many apprentices end up with a job, go onto further learning and gain higher wages. That should change and needs to change if we are to sell Apprenticeships to young people, parents and their advisers as well as to more employers.

So how well does the Apprenticeship programme do on equality and diversity? Sadly, the programme seems to echo the inequalities which already exist in the labour market. Around 9% of apprentices are from BME backgrounds compared with 15% of the population; gender stereotyping of ‘male and female roles’ is rife; and access to Apprenticeships for people with disabilities is poor. The figures are not good and perhaps more worryingly, we don’t have a strong policy push or funding and measures like there are in higher education for instance. In HE we have OFFA, widening participation and retention budgets policies and significant budgets from HEFCE and universities being focused on greater equality of access and achievement. Surely we need that for Apprenticeships as well?

As a sector these three issues – definition, quality and access – do matter and it is critical that we focus on them with the new Government in its early days. I want the Apprenticeship programme to carry on receiving the support it now has, but for the right reasons and in a fit state to offer every apprentice a great experience and to genuinely set them up for a fulfilling career and life.

NIACE is calling for the introduction of an Apprentice Charter to raise the quality and equality of Apprenticeships. Policy-makers, employers, providers and apprentices are invited to make comments on the initial proposed approach.



John Powdrill 

March 12th, 2015 at 2:36 pm

Yes. How would such a charter be created? How would it be used? How monitored?would it not be perceived as a control and restriction to companies whose first priority is to turn a profit in the immediate rather than contributing to the socio- ecomonic well being of the nation? Are they not perceived of as good by politicians purely because they take responsibility away from the state at least in short term?
A charter will be a good thing, but some scepticism here.