No Image Available


Read more from TrainingZone

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Beefing Up Apprentice Training. By Dawn Smith


Despite government measures to beef up apprenticeship training, it seems there is still a perception in some circles that apprenticeships are an inferior form of education to academic qualifications. Would further formalising on-the-job training help to improve matters – so that apprentices are never seen as low paid tea-makers and sweeper-uppers – or would it defeat the object? Dawn Smith gauges some opinions

With GSCE grades reaching new heights this year, school leavers are more qualified than ever. Yet business and industry continues to face a skills gap - and the government is pursuing vocational training in a big way in an effort to plug it.

Having given responsibility for devising apprenticeship training to the Sector Skills Councils, which represent employers in various industries, the government recently went nationwide with its Train to Gain project (the skills brokerage scheme that puts employers together with training providers), and is preparing to launch its first 14-19 Diplomas (which teach subjects such as maths in the context of an industry, such as construction).

All this emphasis on skills training over academic achievement is ruffling feathers amongst those who think university degrees are more important - such as Boris Johnson, who spoke out on the subject in May. It’s hard to expunge all the prejudices surrounding this issue – such as the perception that apprentices toil over a broom for low wages while their academic cousins do more important things like reading advanced mathematics; or the contrary view that universities turn out overqualified geeks who wouldn’t know one end of a broom from the other.

As the debate over skills versus schoolbooks continues, it begs the question of whether both sides could be brought closer together somehow. It’s an important question, because although more than 270,000 young people are in apprenticeship training at present, many bright young things who could plug the skills gap are staying on at school rather than taking the apprenticeship route. And of those who start, only 53% complete their apprenticeship, despite a big rise in completion rates from only 24% in 2001/02.

“I believe too many students are being encouraged to stay on at school,” says Keith Marshall, Chief Executive of SummitSkills – the Sector Skills Council for the building services engineering sector. “Not enough young people realise what opportunities there are for moving into work and earning as they learn. Many careers which start out on the apprenticeship route need a high level of ability anyway. So the idea that if you are capable you do A levels and if you are not capable you become an apprentice is wrong.”

Apprenticeships clearly have an image problem - and this is linked to the quality of training, as well as the rate of pay that apprentices receive.

“The quality of apprenticeships vary, with some apprentices receiving extremely low pay and inadequate or no training,” says Liz Smith, Director of unionlearn. “This has a negative impact on completion rates (which are currently around 50%) and the value of the apprenticeship ‘brand’.”

One option that might improve the ‘brand’ value could be to bring apprenticeship training closer in some way to academic learning. Perhaps by further formalising and standardising the on-the-job element of apprenticeship training, its image – and therefore attractiveness to bright students – could be improved?

The problem with making apprenticeships more formal is that it’s not, by and large, what industry wants. “Apprenticeship frameworks need a degree of flexibility to ensure that they can be adapted easily to meet employers’ specific needs,” says Sir Roy Gardner, Chairman of Compass PLC and Chair of the Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network. “Formal and on-the-job training are integral to the success of the apprenticeship and it is the responsibility of the employer, the training provider and the young person to make sure that the programme is followed… I believe that employers would be reluctant to recruit apprentices if the process was more formalised than is absolutely necessary.”

At the Learning and Skills Council, Director of Apprenticeships Stephen Gardner agrees: “I don’t believe it is necessary or desirable to further formalise training for apprentices… Apprenticeships have been about achieving things that are appropriate for a particular trade and a particular company. They have to be inextricably linked to what the employers want.”

If formalising on-the-job training is not the answer, what steps could be taken to improve the quality of apprenticeship training? Keith Marshall believes that apprenticeship training is of sufficiently high quality when the framework laid down by Sector Skills Councils is followed. “In that case, there are checks and balances in place,” he says. “It’s a clear, structured learning and development programme involving off-the-job theory and on-the-job training.”

He adds, however, that one area where the system sometimes falls down is in making the link between the on-the-job and off-the-job elements. “For example, if you have an apprentice working in a garage, he may learn the theory about fitting an exhaust at college. In an ideal world, the next day back at work he would fit an exhaust. But that can’t always happen in practice.”

Liz Smith at unionlearn comments that providing the apprentice with a workplace mentor can improve matters. “…where apprentices are supported in their role and in particular have a workplace ‘mentor’, they are more likely to have a positive experience in their apprenticeship,” she says. “Good practice isn’t particularly widespread, although there are excellent examples of unions and in particular Union Learning Representatives playing this role.”

Sir Roy Gardner believes that the key to improving the quality of apprenticeship training – and therefore completion rates – is getting the framework right from the start. “Matching the right person to the right framework is essential, that is making sure that the individual has the ability to achieve the qualification,” he says. “The apprentice needs to know exactly what is expected of them, how long the framework will last and what his progression, presuming success, might be.” He adds that the off-site or formal training must be of the highest quality.

Stephen Gardner says the key to improving training quality for apprentices is ensuring a “close link between employer and training provider, so that the training is embedded in the fabric of what the employer does, not seen as an add on.” He adds that the Learning and Skills Council has been working with training providers to establish best practice in training quality – but now plans to use the sanction of the closed cheque book for those which don’t make the grade. “We won’t be continuing funding for providers who don’t meet minimum standards,” he explains. “We have done our bit to try to improve things. Now - for the funding year 07-08 - we will be stopping funding for those providers who come below the minimum level of improvement.”

The power of cash – but in the form of a carrot rather than a stick – is also an important factor in improving the quality and image of apprenticeships, says Liz Smith. “Research by the Apprenticeship Taskforce showed that low wages are one of the significant reasons for non-completion of apprenticeships,” she says. “The TUC believes the Government should promote a ‘vision’ for a high quality apprenticeship, with good pay and high quality training, and including the role of workplace mentors.” She adds that action is also needed to boost equality for women, black and ethnic minority and disabled people in apprenticeships.

While being “reluctant to immediately turn to the funding issue,” Keith Marshall believes that apprenticeships could be improved by allowing more flexibility in the way that the current funding is used. The funding for apprentice training is only available for young people aged from 16 to 19, he points out, which excludes many young people who might be ideally suited to apprenticeship training, as well as older people such as career changers and returners.

But whatever steps might be taken to boost the quality and effectiveness of apprenticeship training and the attendant framework, there is no getting away from one of the central image problems that deters some bright young things: the fact that apprentices, especially in their early days, will spend some hours ‘pushing broom’.

“I don’t think that it is unreasonable for new recruits or apprentices to be asked to undertake menial tasks, such as making tea or washing up so long as that is not the mainstay of their work and the majority of their activity is focused on doing what is necessary to achieve the apprenticeship,” says Sir Roy Gardner. “Indeed, I know many who have started off their careers spending a lot of their time doing just that, myself included!”

If apprentices will always push brooms – at least part of the time - perhaps an antidote to the ‘broom versus books’ dichotomy, which causes many a clever student to eschew apprenticeships, is to include menial tasks in academic study, to bring school-life closer to the shop floor. I vote for 6th formers being required to clean up when they get home from school, as part of their A Level assessment. I foresee some enforcement problems (especially in my house), but I like the idea…


Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!