As most in the sector will know, calling a training programme an “apprenticeship” if it is not government-backed became illegal under the Enterprise Act 2016.
Then skills minister Nick Boles said at the time it would give officials power to take action in such cases as “we don’t want their status to be undermined by those unscrupulously passing off short courses as apprenticeships”.
So when FE Week was tipped off that a commercial training provider in the brewing industry was calling a two-week course an apprenticeship – just the 50 weeks off what is needed to meet the government’s minimum duration for a statutory apprenticeship – we began investigating and asked the Department for Education what action it would take.
But, as ever with the DfE, things were not simple or very transparent.
We were informed on Wednesday December 2 that the Brew-School, a firm that runs commercial beer-brewing courses, had been advertising plans to launch the “Brew-School’s Brewing Apprenticeship” which would last for 14 days at a cost of £2,500 per learner, from 2021.
The course would “combine the best of internationally recognised brewing qualifications with intensive experience of working in a real microbrewery”.
And “during the two-week brewing apprenticeship you will be taught by three master brewers to the latest syllabus of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling general certificate in brewing,” it added.
The advert pitches the course against the government-backed level 4 brewing apprenticeship, saying that “unfortunately” it takes 18 months to complete “and you still will not have an internationally recognised brewing qualification”.
“The beauty with the new Brew-School Brewing Apprenticeship is that this intensive two-week apprenticeship will lead you to obtain several formal brewing- and beer-related qualifications as well as practical brewing training,” it said.
The advert even came with a syllabus for the “apprenticeship”.
FE Week initially tried calling the company, which is also not on the government’s register of apprenticeship training providers, but the number provided on its website goes straight to voicemail. We emailed asking for comment about how this two-week course qualifies as an apprenticeship, and informed them that it is an offence under the Enterprise Act 2016, which includes the following clause: “Only statutory apprenticeships to be described as apprenticeships”.
In 2017, the same clause was added to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 – the relevant legislation under which powers to intervene now fall.
At the same time we enquired with the DfE and received a response just hours later saying the department will “consider the information provided to us in relation to this enquiry and take action as appropriate”. However, it added that enforcement duties actually rest with the relevant “local weights and measures authority” (trading standards) and it would be for them to decide whether or not legal proceedings are appropriate.
Next stop, then, was to contact the local trading standards – a service typically found in each local authority to whom illegal trading can be reported and acted upon. In this case it was Sheffield City Council.
Days went by before the council called to say it could find no evidence of the Brew-School’s 14-day apprenticeship.
Upon checking back on the firm’s website, it transpired that the “apprenticeship” had since been changed and is now called a “Trainee Brewer Course”.
The DfE called that same day to say it too could see no evidence of a bogus apprenticeship.
Of course, FE Week had screen-shots and the previous syllabus saved to show the council and government what the advert had previously stated.
But it turns out the DfE’s Education and Skills Funding Agency had actually contacted the Brew-School last Thursday, the day after FE Week’s initial enquiry, and told the firm to “ensure that all references to apprenticeships are removed immediately” and to confirm that this action has been taken within ten working days.
FE Week was not – and still has not – been informed of this action by the DfE, but the Brew-School finally responded one week after our initial enquiry to tell us about the department’s communication.
A director of the Brew-School responded to the DfE to say: “Thank you for bringing this to our attention which we were totally unaware of. We have now changed the description of our course and renamed it as a Trainee Brewer Course.”
The council has since not responded to FE Week’s request for comment – so the extent of any legal action that could be taken in such cases remains unclear.