The government announced its first measures aimed at helping it achieve the target of 3m apprenticeship starts by the end of this Parliament. David Harbourne assesses the measures, including the provision for legal protection of the ‘apprenticeship’ term.

When the government announced that the word ‘apprenticeship’ is to be legally protected, I had an odd sense of déjà vu.

The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 introduced a raft of definitions, ranging from ‘apprenticeship agreement’ to ‘recognised Welsh framework’. Under the Act, apprentices had to be employed, which put paid to programme-led apprenticeships.

That was the first legal definition of apprenticeship in this country in nearly 200 years. Before that, there had been a Statute of Artificers, passed during the reign of Elizabeth I — but it was abolished in 1805, and not replaced until 2009.

We don’t yet know what the new definition will be, but Skills Minister Nick Boles has said the Enterprise Bill will give the government powers to ‘take action when the term is misused to promote low quality courses’.

And that begs the question: what is a low quality course, in the context of an apprenticeship?

Previously, the government has equated poor quality with short duration — anything less than a year can’t be considered good enough. I always had my doubts about that.

Previously, the government has equated poor quality with short duration. Anything less than a year can’t be considered good enough. I always had my doubts about that

 When we first developed Modern Apprenticeships, the idea was to tailor the apprenticeship to the needs and abilities of the individual. Some people learn quicker than others. If full competency can be reached in 11 months, why make someone wait the extra month before they can claim to be qualified?

Next, we bump into concepts such as restrictive and expansive apprenticeships. Professors Alison Fuller and Lorna Unwin from the Institute of Education have been talking about this for some time.

At the risk of over-simplifying their ideas, expansive apprenticeships prepare people for careers in a chosen occupational field, whereas restrictive apprenticeships prepare them for a narrowly-defined job role.

On this basis, almost all of Switzerland’s apprenticeships can be described as expansive. I visited a Unilever factory which makes powdered foods. Their apprentices learn by doing a variety of jobs in different parts of the factory, but they pick up additional skills and knowledge by attending off-job courses.

That sets them in good stead for their future careers, not just to work on a production line.

Alison and Lorna would argue that too many of England’s apprenticeships are restrictive, because they are based on the minimum skillset needed to do a particular job, and neglect the wider skills and experience offered to Swiss apprentices.

Then there’s the question of training versus assessment. The argument goes that in some cases, public funding pays for assessment, not training.

There are definitely benefits from assessing and accrediting skills, but critics believe we should focus on training people who are new to their jobs, not on accrediting the skills of people who have already been in work for some time.

In the end, you get what you’re willing to pay for. Here in England, there is a long tradition of co-investment in some sectors.

Engineering is a prime example, where both the state and the employer contribute towards apprenticeship training and assessment costs. In other sectors, external apprenticeship costs have been entirely state-funded, though employers do of course still pay apprentices’ wages and other employment costs.

Squaring all of these circles isn’t going to be easy. I don’t think the Trailblazers provide all the answers. I doubt a new statutory definition of apprenticeships will either, though I live in hope.

But saddled with a target of 3m apprenticeship starts, maybe the real question is this: will the government simply pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap? I seriously hope not.