Apprenticeships: Why the training rules must change

When it comes to off-the-job training, it's clear that employers need to set the rules themselves, writes Jane Hickie
23rd November 2020, 2:31pm


Apprenticeships: Why the training rules must change
Apprenticeships: Why The Off-the-job Training Rules For Apprentices Need To Change

The rule requiring an apprentice to spend at least 20 per cent of their training programme learning off the job is a quality benchmark among ministers and policymakers. 

However, the official guardian of quality in education, Ofsted, has gone on the record several times to say that counting the hours of off-the-job training is not in itself an indicator of quality - it is what is being taught that counts.

Off-the-job training was already required in an apprenticeship before Doug Richard wrote his far-reaching review of apprenticeships for the coalition government in 2012. He recommended that there should be a minimum period allocated to it but added that "we should encourage flexibility and diversity in the particular path the apprentice could or should take in getting to the desired standard. This could mean flexibility in terms of the balance of on-the-job and off-the-job training".  

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He's right: AELP's position has always been that the employer trailblazers should decide what the appropriate minimum requirement should be for each standard.

But not long after Doug Richard's review, the government decided that a 20 per cent requirement should apply to all apprenticeship standards. The rationale wasn't explained at the time but the suspicion was that some senior officials wanted every apprentice to spend a day a week at their local college even though this type of delivery had generally become outmoded after modern apprenticeships were introduced in 1994.  

Even though the Education and Skills Funding Agency's rules allow for apprentices to receive off-the-job training at their workstation, providing that the tuition is taking them off their normal duties, there is still a perception out there that going off-site is what the 20 per cent rule requires.  

Recently, a well-known high street retailer had to explain to its frustrated branch managers that their apprentices were permitted to work in store five days a week despite the rule. The same employer now refers to "learning time" in communications to its managers and apprentices instead of "off-the-job" to reduce the chances of confusion. One of the world's largest banks has also told us that it takes some explaining to its apprentices what the term actually means.

Apprenticeships: A barrier to participation

As far as introducing some flexibility in the 20 per cent rule, AELP had more or less given up, even though surveys and polls had placed the rule at the top of the largest barriers preventing employers from engaging in the apprenticeship programme.  

Then, last month the Department for Education itself published research citing the rule as a reason for the decline in employers offering apprenticeship opportunities at levels 2 and 3. This was followed up by the department approaching more employers on what they felt were the barriers to their participation.

The published research highlights the long-standing problems with the rule's rigidity. At the lower levels, in particular, finding staff cover for apprentices taken off the job is costly and burdensome. SMEs say that the additional administration is a barrier and even large employers told AELP that apprentices tracking their own time spent off the job can be significant in a competitive environment. Above all, it is the lack of flexibility being applied to early talent's learning that lies at the heart of the frustration. 

One of Britain's largest companies has pointed out that some of its apprentices need far less than 20 per cent of the programme time to progress while others need far more, but the rule doesn't allow it to flex its programme accordingly.  The company said to us: "The government doesn't respect what we need."

If the DfE's new approaches to employers form part of a formal review in apprenticeship engagement, which looks at the off-the-job training rule, AELP would propose that the study of maths and English by an apprentice should count towards time spent learning off the job.  

Leadership teams of our member providers, especially those who don't come from a privileged background, also struggle to understand why some degree of well-managed homework isn't allowed to count. Barriers to social mobility are often overcome if a learner chooses to put in some extra work in the evening or at the weekend (look, for example, at the traditional professions such as accountancy and law), but learning off the job in an apprenticeship can only take place in contracted working hours. Why are apprenticeships singled out in this way?

Reversing the fall in apprenticeship starts

AELP is certainly not advocating the removal of the off-the-job training requirement from apprenticeships. It is a valued part of the apprentice's experience and we support Ofsted inspecting the quality of provision which goes on within it if the inspectors have doubts about the quality of the overall programme.  

However, ever since the Richard review, the government has called apprenticeships an employer-driven programme and it is about time that it placed faith in the employers on the Trailblazers programme to decide how much of learning off the job is appropriate for each standard.  

Some new flexibility would definitely help to reverse the falls in apprenticeship starts among young people and at the lower levels.

Jane Hickie is managing director of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers

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