A shake-up of apprenticeships will see all programmes for 16 to 18 year-olds take place for at least a year.
Skills minister John Hayes revealed the new measure, which comes into place from August 2012, during a debate on apprenticeships at the House of Commons on Monday.
He also revealed that delivery models must include a “rigorous” amount of job-relevant learning and training.
The National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) will now look at extending the new minimum length of delivery to older learners and take action to improve any frameworks failing to deliver new and relevant skills.
“If the standards are sufficiently stretching and the expectations of competence high, I believe that a course should naturally extend over at least 12 months,” Mr Hayes said.
“That will be the expectation first for 16 to 18 year-old apprentices from August 2012, as new contracts to training providers are issued.”
However, Gordon Marsden, shadow minister for further education, skills and lifelong learning, said Mr Hayes needed to do more to help apprentices of all ages.
“The minister’s announcement will do nothing immediately to address the concerns about the quality and progression of apprenticeships for those in the crucial age range between 19 and 24,” said Mr Marsden.
“After all, their futures are just as important to the economy and jobs as those in the younger range.
“We will therefore be pressing ministers to ensure that apprenticeship standards and quality are maintained for all ages.”
News on the new method has sparked a wide-reaching debate from across the sector.
Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said the minimum delivery length is “sensible” and could also extend to adult apprentices.
He said: “We have been discussing this requirement with Government over the past weeks and agree that 12 months represent a sensible minimum period for the necessary learning, reflection and embedding within an apprenticeship for a young person.
“The situation for an older apprentice, who may already have the required functional Maths and English skills and have experience in the relevant sector, is more nuanced, but even here we think it reasonable that there be a presumed minimum duration of 12 months from which special dispensation should be sought on a case by case basis.”
Mr Doel added: “Taken together, we think that these changes will reinforce the apprenticeship ‘brand’ and will help support its continued sustainable growth as a quality offer to employers and employees of whatever age.”
However, the 157 Group has stressed that longer apprenticeships do not necessarily equate to a better quality of training for the learner.
“Focus should remain on the criteria around teaching and learning and the strength of the framework and its content rather than the length of delivery,” a spokesperson said.
“However, we recognise that there has previously been an issue around short apprenticeships which have not led to positive outcomes.”
Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said he would be “concerned” if the minimum duration was applied to older employees.
“We’re rather against formal time serving periods, because that was something for the past which didn’t take into account the individual’s capacity to learn and move forward,” Mr Hoyle said.
“But with 16 to 18 year-olds, clearly the vast majority of them need a minimum period to clear a full framework.”
Mr Hoyle added: “We will be slightly more concerned if they put minimum levels in for older workers, who bring in their own experence and skills with them.
“They need less time to actually complete a full framework – but that’s not what has happened.”
A spokesperson from the UK Commission of Employment and Skills (UKCES) said focusing on the length of the apprenticeship “is only one half of the story”.
She added: “The content and quality of the learning experience delivered through apprenticeships is also important, and we believe that means ensuring that employers have greater ownership of the content and development of apprenticeships.”
The issue on quality was also covered by Mr Hayes during the parliamentary debate, where he announced plans for a crackdown by the NAS.
Mr Hayes said: “I have asked the NAS to work with the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils to tighten guidance for those who are developing apprenticeship frameworks, to ensure that expectations on national standards and rigour are met, and to take action where frameworks are insufficiently stretching.
“In the current economic times, we must be more vigilant than ever to ensure that funding delivers value and is properly spent.”
The minister said the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) will tighten contracts with colleges and training providers in order to withdraw funding where quality standards are not being met.
Mr Hayes said: “Our resolve is to ensure that every penny of public money delivers high-quality apprenticeships and to continue to weed out failure and weakness wherever they are found.
“I will make the evidence available in my submissions to that inquiry, giving a clear timetable of action and details of the steps we intend to take to root out poor provision.”
The announcements have come off the back of a number of stories in FE Week surrounding the concerns of short apprenticeships.
A debate was also hosted in the House of Commons on the matter, which was brought up by Mr Marsden in his response on Monday.
“There is a lively and on-going debate about the nature of apprenticeships – an issue to which the Government have rapidly been forced to turn because of some of the disquiet in recent months,” Mr Marsden said.
“That was apparent from a meeting in this House organised recently by FE Week, when more than 80 apprenticeship providers came to the Commons to voice their views and concerns about quality and overstretch in apprenticeships, which is something that we have also articulated via our parliamentary questions.”