Simply put, there are too many pathways, says Rob May, and they’re more than likely too specialised to be truly useful

More than a few people in the sector believe that multiple regulators and a lack of standardisation will fundamentally undermine the apprenticeship reform programme. It’s an opinion I’ve shared in the past, but I’m now starting to reconsider.

We need an elementary reframing of what an apprenticeship actually is, and, importantly, what it isn’t. The definition varies, and the one offered on gov.uk lacks any razzmatazz: “Apprenticeships combine practical training in a job with study.” That’s true, but as an explanation it neglects the helpful, subtle distinction that separates apprenticeships from other forms of vocational learning.

An apprenticeship is when someone is learning under a master in a particular field. It describes a relationship, not an outcome. Leonardo Da Vinci served as an apprentice, and so did Benjamin Franklin, although there were no “gateways”, EPAOs or 20-per-cent off-the-job training rules in their day!

That’s because, unlike A-levels, applied generals or GCSEs, an apprenticeship is a concept, not a product.

An apprenticeship is a psychological and cultural contract, the terms of which are often implied on the basis of custom, or a tradition of usage. It’s a dynamic approach to industrial continuity and evolution.

An apprenticeship is when someone is learning under a master in a particular field. It describes a relationship, not an outcome

So, it’s not really surprising to see trailblazers, employers and trade bodies interpret apprenticeship content, assessment and regulation very differently. Industries have evolved their understanding of apprenticeships over centuries and now they’ve been asked to codify the concept as a “product”. We’ve seen an army of designers each bring divergent wisdoms about what an apprenticeship actually is and how it should be configured, but they often show no real understanding of the robotic assessment pipeline into which they stuff their reworking of the concept.

The government was right to throw open the drafting of new standards to industry, but it is now funnelling apprenticeship delivery and assessment into a market that relies heavily on consistency, coherence and cohesion to ensure public confidence in the education system.

This is a system that is used to commodified qualifications, linear progression and performance tables, and above all to reliable, comparable assessment. Equating academic levels with levels of apprenticeship only adds to the potential for the implosion of the system, and it’s not how parity of esteem is achieved. We must recognise that there are different, equally valid ways of learning, with different rules. The idea that one institution can regulate an increasingly atomised learning environment is fallacious.

Arguably, apprenticeships are not subject to the same natural laws as qualifications, but likewise, not every qualification can become an apprenticeship, as this risks stripping away the very thing which determines distinctiveness. Some trailblazers seem intent on transforming anything they touch into apprenticeships when they are clearly not.

The idea that one institution can regulate an increasingly atomised learning environment is fallacious

My dad undertook his carpentry apprenticeship in 1960. It lasted five years and led to a broad range of occupational possibilities. But some of today’s apprenticeship standards are way too job-specific; for example ‘mineral weighbridge operator’, or ‘electronic door opener’. With respect, these are not apprenticeships; they are specific jobs requiring specific, contained training. There may be transferable skills involved, but enough to become a specialist in a trade? Doubtful.

So, the answer to the question, when is an apprenticeship not an apprenticeship, is, unfortunately: most of the time.

Addressing the complexities of the vocational education system by making everything “an apprenticeship” won’t work, and dilutes the value of the concept in fields where it is a well-trodden pathway, in areas such as engineering, construction, tailoring and carpentry. To return credibility to the concept, some of these job-specific apprenticeship standards simply have to go.

In the world of apprenticeships, multiple accountabilities are unavoidable. Let’s reassess how we think of the regulation landscape, stop resisting compromise and accept the inevitable, if accidental redesign of the technical education system.

Rob May is CEO of the Association of Business Executives. Piece inspired by ‘Skilling up for a future’ at The Centre for Education Economics on 7 Nov