Two thirds of apprenticeships are merely “converting” existing employees and could be certifying existing skills, rather than focusing on expanding expertise, a new report has warned.
Researchers recommend that Ofsted inspections should check that these existing employees being converted into apprentices are actually learning new skills.
‘Better apprenticeships’, by social mobility foundation the Sutton Trust, looked at whether apprenticeships are of a high-enough quality to boost the life chances of young people aged 16 to 24.
The issue of employers rebadging existing staff as apprentices – or “conversions” – is one of four “systemic problems” it found within the current apprenticeship model.
Around two thirds of apprentices are conversions, which “highlights the way in which the concept of apprenticeship has been stretched to achieve numerical targets rather than to ensure consistent quality”.
“Although this practice was highlighted in a select committee report in 2008, there is still no robust procedure in place to ensure existing employees are improving their skills rather than just being accredited for their existing competence,” the report said.
It recommended that Ofsted should include “specific processes for ensuring that existing employees are participating in substantial training to develop new skills and occupational expertise”.
“Although reference is made in several reports to the adequacy (or not) of recognising and building on the prior learning and experience of apprentices, there is no distinction made as to whether apprentices are new recruits or existing employees,” it said.
It is also “unclear” how the Institute for Apprenticeships intends to ensure that these conversions are “engaging in substantive training to develop new skills at a higher level”.
Even though the last Labour government agreed to publish separate statistics on new recruits and conversions from 2010 onwards, “this has still not happened”.
In an exclusive expert piece for FE Week, Conor Ryan, the research director for the Sutton Trust, claims that the practice of converting existing staff to apprentices is “one way employers can circumvent” the apprenticeship levy, which came into force in May.
“It is vital that there are tough minimum expectations in every apprenticeship, so that they give apprentices the expertise and capability to adapt to a rapidly changing labour market and that they do not become a bureaucratic burden on business to be dodged by clever accountants,” he wrote.
The report concluded that while there are some “very good quality” apprenticeships, “too many” are “failing to provide sufficient training and access to skilled work to enable participants to progress”.
Other problems include the assumption that any workplace and job was suitable for apprenticeships, which leads to “considerable inconsistency across sector and levels”.
The “segmentation of apprenticeships by level puts an automatic break on progression” with “no expectation” that an apprentice will progress onto the next level.
It also said that “funding arrangements do not incentivise quality”.
An Ofsted spokesperson claimed the report “describes what our inspection of apprenticeship training already does”.
“Our focus is on apprentices’ acquisition of new skills, knowledge and behaviours, the quality of their actual training and the progress they are making,” they said. “That applies whether the apprentice is new to the employer or not.”
An IfA spokesperson said: “Each apprentice should undertake a stretching programme which will result in genuine skills gain, not in the accreditation of existing skills.
“It is important that apprenticeships remain available to new and existing employees, but they should only be offered to the latter where substantial training is required to achieve competency in their role.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “We want to ensure that everyone, regardless of their background or gender, has the ability to fulfil their potential and get the skills and training they need to build a successful career.”