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Opinion: 'We are in the process of redefining apprenticeships'

Teresa Frith, senior skills policy manager for the Association of Colleges (AoC), asks what the future holds for apprenticeships and whether their traditional definition will change after the levy

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As I get more and more immersed in the current apprenticeship reforms and funding changes, I am constantly imagining how they will affect those who engage with the system; in other words, providers, employers and apprentices. Within the barrage of reforms in all areas of further education are things changing for the better? What will the sector actually look like – particularly after 2020 when the 3 million target has passed? As I ponder the answers to these questions and discuss the implications and practical realities of transitioning effectively into the ‘new world’ with college staff, it strikes me that one of the things we may well see is a shift in our understanding of what an apprenticeship actually is.

Back in medieval times, the definition of an apprenticeship was pretty clear: it was a lengthy (around seven year) relationship between a guild-recognised master and a young, inexperienced boy. The parents or patrons of the apprentice paid the master to house, feed and teach the boy about life, his responsibilities (to society, community, guild and family) and train him in a particular trade. The basis of this, outside who pays and the breadth of the remit, has remained largely unchanged, but will this still be the case after the reforms are implemented?

We have heard a lot about the need for parity between vocational and academic education and training, and we are told that there are serious skills gaps at technician level (above A Level). Local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and combined local authorities are also keen to see higher level skills being delivered, particularly in advanced manufacturing and engineering. Government apprenticeship reforms are urging employers to focus on level 3 (A Level equivalent) and upwards. We have seen the introduction of the first degree apprenticeships (level 6) and even a few Masters (level 7) apprenticeships.

We know that the aim of the reform is an increase in productivity and such gains seem more likely to come from higher level skills development. Larger businesses will soon be paying an apprenticeship levy and might be considering how to convert their existing internal training programmes into apprenticeships, which could include graduate recruitment activities. The funding reforms do not differentiate by age or apprenticeship level. Apprentices can be existing members of staff being developed for a new role or progression and there is no additional cost to the wage bill.

What impact will all this have on the apprenticeship product itself? It seems quite likely that as the Government rushes to achieve parity, increase equality and improve productivity, we will see more apprenticeships at higher level. This is against a backdrop of larger employers seeking to make a return on their levy ‘investment’ and providers meeting demand from businesses. I do not think this is a bad thing at all, if we put aside a discussion about using public money for training that employers would be happy to fund themselves for the moment. However, it does mean we are in the process of redefining apprenticeships. It’s no longer a traditionally-based route into work and a trade for less experienced young people, but more a product that aids progression within the workplace for those who are already proven workers.

So, what is in a name? Does it matter if the apprenticeship brand becomes more about in-work progression? Perhaps or perhaps not. What really matters is that we do not lose sight of the need to ensure that we retain a fundable, in-work training route that allows young people to gather work and life skills while developing their trade ones.

Teresa Frith is senior skills policy manager for the AoC. She tweets at @FrithTeresa

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