The 20 per cent rule should be immediately reviewed as a universal requirement, suggests Mark Dawe

AELP totally supports the drive to ensure high quality apprenticeships with proper progress in knowledge, skills and behaviour enabling progression from one level to the next. We just don’t believe that the off-the-job element of the programme should necessarily comprise 20 per cent of working hours across all standards. 

The reforms have put employers in the driving seat and the new standards are designed by employers for employers. Levy-payers are now funding the programme as well, so employers should arguably have the biggest say on what they can offer. 

Let’s be clear: since the apprenticeship legislation of 2009, off-the-job training has been a mandatory requirement for any apprenticeship. But as Tom Richmond reminds us, civil servants allowed themselves to be persuaded in 2013 that the old-style equivalent of a weekly day release to college means that the requirement should comprise 20 per cent of working hours. Yet the 20 per cent is still an arbitrary ESFA funding rule which can be amended at any time.

Different levels in different sectors need different approaches. In some cases, such as dental nursing, working with a supervisor demonstrating on state-of-the-art machinery and explaining the theory behind it is better than sitting away from the workplace being pummelled with some unrelatable theory.

A mandatory 20 per cent doesn’t offer any correlation with the quality of the provision actually being delivered; it is simply a blunt broad-brush stick to be used as a compliance measure – in essence a requirement of funding by government. From public platforms in recent weeks, it appears that Ofsted shares our view, and senior officials have confirmed that they have absolutely no interest in auditing the number of hours being chalked up for this purpose. ESFA audits mean however that employers and providers will still have to keep evidence that the requirement is being met. 

We must go back to the employer-driven principles behind the reforms. In trailblazer employer groups, there are already credible vehicles which should be given the flexibility and responsibility to define the required level of off-the-job training which is right for apprentices to acquire the skills, knowledge and behaviours for individual standards in each specific sector. 

We need to act quickly on this because employers are already telling their training providers that the rule will limit both their participation and appetite to embrace apprenticeships. Many thousands of organisations now have no option but to pay the levy, but then they see yet further additional cost in losing employees one day a week. We speak to employers who have to backfill positions as cover and even extend contracts to provide additional working hours in which to shoehorn in the 20 per cent training time. 

In some sectors, the employment costs and tight margins mean that employers can’t afford to cover the cost of unproductive hours along with the other demands of having apprentices. Are we really going to stop an apprenticeship even when the provider, employer, and learner agree an alternative approach which meets with the government inspectorate’s approval? Furthermore, what about the fact that it costs the same to have someone teaching the apprentice whether the funding is £2,000 or £9,000 a year. The funding does not support the 20 per cent requirement.

As the Taylor review has recognised this week, low-wage sectors are the ones that often most need skills development, especially in the light of Brexit, and these sectors often contribute most to social mobility. Therefore we shouldn’t be pricing them out of apprenticeships.

Opposition to 20 per cent might be less vehement if the rule wasn’t fixed on contracted working hours. All other forms of education where the state is making a financial contribution encourage young people to do homework but apprenticeships appear to be singled out for off-the-job learning to be part of a 35-hour working week. 

The 20 per cent rule should be reviewed as a universal requirement and reconsidered in relation to each sector’s needs. 


Mark Dawe is the CEO of AELP



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.