The countries with the best apprenticeships in the world have far more training than we do in the UK, explains Tom Richmond

Now that Ofsted expects numeracy to be embedded across the curriculum, let us take this opportunity to practise a little maths ourselves. 

Say an apprentice is employed for 35 hours a week, seven hours a day. If they spend one day each week training off the job for a full year, that equates, excluding holidays, to just over 300 hours of training. And because the government is clear that an apprentice must spend a minimum of 20 per cent of their employment on off-the-job training, this means that every apprentice needs to spend well over 300 hours of every year of their apprenticeship engaged in learning away from their job. 

The AELP is crying foul, claiming this 20 per cent rule is too crude a method to raise quality and that such a simplistic measure cannot be used to hold providers to account. It also cites a lack of willingness among some employers to release apprentices for this amount of time. On all three counts, the AELP is correct – but its complaints should nonetheless be ignored.

As far back as 2013, the government has insisted that all apprenticeships produced by their ongoing reform programme must involve at least 20 per cent off-the-job training. Leaving aside the absurdity of civil servants taking four years to explain what 20 per cent actually means, last month’s long-awaited guidance was a welcome attempt to steady the ship.  

Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands are often cited as the gold standards of apprenticeships. Although each system has unique elements, they share an unwavering commitment to extensive training both on and off the job – with the latter taking up around a quarter to a third of an apprentice’s working week. 

This helps to put our paltry expectation of 20 per cent into perspective. Through varying combinations of ‘day release’ and ‘block release’ delivery models, continental apprenticeships promote high expectations and standards alongside more commitment from employers, apprentices and providers. 

The overriding problem with the current debate over the 20 per cent rule is that the debate should never have happened in the first place. If ministers and civil servants had been brave enough to reject the dreadful new apprenticeship standards that barely require any training whatsoever (the hospitality team member and delivery driver standards spring to mind, among many others), we would not need to have this discussion. 

Contrast the poorest standards with new apprenticeships for automotive engineers, construction surveyors and welders, and you begin to understand why 20 per cent off-the-job training looks unachievable for weak standards while remaining well below what is needed to deliver the more impressive ones. 

In short, any respectable apprenticeship will require hundreds of hours of training away from the workplace because it is related to a skilled occupation requiring substantial and substantive training (the government’s words, incidentally, not mine) that easily surpasses the mandated minimum of 20 per cent. 

If there are any employers that take issue with their apprentices having to acquire a wider range of knowledge and understanding during their course, or if any providers are unable or unwilling to train their apprentices, then we should politely wave them goodbye and focus instead on employers and providers whose actions demonstrate that they value high-quality provision. 

The 20 per cent off-the-job rule is far from perfect, but it must be protected in order to protect apprentices from the worst of what our apprenticeship system has to offer.

 

Tom Richmond is a sixth-form college tutor and former senior adviser to skills ministers Nick Boles and Matt Hancock

 

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Guide to off-the-job training rule

As of May 1 anyone that starts an apprenticeship – whether on a framework or new standard – must now receive at least 20 per cent off-the-job training, according to new Education and Skills Funding Agency rules.

The requirement, which was first announced back in 2013, is one of the government’s core principles for protecting the quality of the apprenticeship programme.

‘Off the job’ is defined as: “Learning which is undertaken outside of the normal day-to-day working environment and leads towards the achievement of an apprenticeship. 

“This can include training that is delivered at the apprentice’s normal place of work but must not be delivered as part of their normal working duties.”

Guidance published by the Department for Education in June stipulated that “each apprentice should have a commitment statement that, among other information, outlines the programme of training that the apprentice should receive” and which “should set out how the provider intends to fulfil the 20 per cent off-the-job training requirement”.

And the provider must submit evidence that the training is being delivered in order to draw down apprenticeship funding. 

But actually working out what counts as ‘off the job’ – or even how much there should be – is far from simple. 

The percentage is calculated on the basis of an apprentice’s contracted hours of work, spread over the duration of their apprenticeship.

For example, if someone is on a two-year apprenticeship and has an employment contract for seven hours a day, five days a week, for 46 weeks that adds up to a total of 3,220 contracted hours over the two years. 

So the minimum amount of time they should spend in off-the-job training would be 644 hours, or the equivalent of one day per working week. 

But this does not have to be undertaken at set times: “It is up to the employer and provider to decide at what point during the apprenticeship the training is best delivered.”

Nor does it have to be delivered in a set format.

For training to count towards the 20 per cent rule, it must teach “new knowledge, skills and/or behaviours that will contribute to the successful achievement of an apprenticeship”. 

It must also be “directly relevant to the apprenticeship” and could include teaching of theory, practical training or time spent completing assignments. 

Training can be carried out at the apprentice’s normal workstation, as long as they are learning new skills – “it is the activity, rather than the location” that counts. 

And some – but not all – off-the-job training can be delivered via distance learning. 

No training the apprentice does in their own time counts towards the 20 per cent rule – except in exceptional circumstances, and only if the apprentice is given time off in lieu – nor do performance reviews.

And any English and maths training doesn’t count either – if it’s needed, it must be on top of the 20 per cent.