Apprenticeships: The new report that leaves Sunak exposed

The new PM likes to say apprenticeships are key to growth but the EDSK’s new report reveals how broken our system is, write Simon Phipp and Annabel May

The new PM likes to say apprenticeships are key to growth but the EDSK’s new report reveals how broken our system is, write Simon Phipp and Annabel May

2 Dec 2022, 5:00


It seems like every week, just after midday on a Wednesday, Rishi Sunak finds a way to tell us that one of the cornerstones of his plan to get us back to growth is apprenticeships. As apprentices, you’d expect us to be in favour of apprenticeships being the silver bullet for getting us back to growth. The fact is, we really wish they were.

Apprenticeships at their best are exactly what we need; they provide people with the skills they need to thrive, they give employers a chance to grow their workforce in a sustainable way and they absolutely deliver economic growth. But we don’t have an apprenticeship system that is anywhere near its best. We have an apprenticeship system that’s in crisis.

The Education and Skills think tank have released a striking report into apprenticeship provision. No Train, No Gain shines a light on a system that is in deep trouble. It shows that off-the-job learning has serious and deep failings.

One in five of us aren’t informed we should have 20 per cent off-the-job training. Half, yes half of us don’t t receive the minimum one day a week off-the-job training, and one-third of us don’t get any. A shocking post-pandemic blip? Don’t you believe it. It’s the same shabby story all the way back to the 2014 apprentice pay survey.

Even if we do get training, Ofsted say it’s not good enough at one-third of providers. This shouldn’t be a surprise when providers’ standard training practice includes counting the time apprentices spend on homework as part of their 20 per cent off-the-job learning.

The current funding rules also allow for unlimited online learning time to be included in an apprentice’s off-the-job learning. So we can wait months between any face-to-face contact, flicking though quizzes and watching YouTube videos. Is it any surprise that 47 per cent (yes, nearly half) of apprentices drop out?

Day release. Easy to explain to your nana, easy to explain to your boss

The National Society of Apprentices (NSoA) has recognised these problems for a number of years. We’ve been campaigning to change the system to one which works for employers, providers, apprentices and the public purse.

Apprenticeships have developed two competing models of training. Those professions that maintained historic apprenticeship provision – like construction, engineering and hair dressing – continue to deliver their training predominantly through day or block release. Employers understand that in order to develop new knowledge and skills, apprentices need to take time away from the workplace.

This model also allows apprentices to engage with peers, compare experiences and access services available in colleges, like childcare, student support, mental health support and sex and relationships education which are still on offer despite a decade of cuts.

Employers and industries that have adopted apprenticeships more recently – like health and social care, early years, retail and business administration – have developed a different training model. The assessor visitor model ensures that an apprentice is in the workplace full-time and must arrange their off-the-job learning around their duties at work.

The NSoA is calling for day release or block release to be the norm for all apprenticeships. It is an ambitious but achievable aim that every apprentice and every employer understands that education is fundamental to being an apprentice. Once a week (or in a block, we don’t really mind), it’s your college time. Easy to explain to your nana, easy to explain to your boss.

Some employers may refuse to participate in an apprenticeship programme that forced them to allow their apprentices to be absent from work one day a week. But this should already be the case. Opting out of the programme should identify non-compliance with the current funding arrangements.

The real question we should ask when Rishi Sunak stands up next Wednesday just after midday is what kind of emperor he is. Is he the emperor with new clothes, standing up to sell us the same broken system and expecting us not to realise? Or is he an emperor with a new groove, who realises that we’ve spotted the problem and fixes the system?

After this week’s report, we hope it’s the latter.

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  1. Tim Buchanan

    EDSK report is not a fair reflection of the apprenticeship system and Jane Hickie is correct in her criticism. This is a think tank, that has its own agenda led by people who lived in the government bubble. The issue with the system is it is over regulated, and constrained by ideology bound staff in IFATE, DFE and EFSA. They are not experts just opinion makers if you are being charitable.
    We need a more flexible model where providers and employers manage delivery and the agencies deal with funding and eligibility. Ofsted and OfS then provide the assurance around the delivery of the programme, but not the government outcomes like Prevent, Citizenship or the link to the latest incarnation of local skills policy. The focus needs to be on skills and innovation not social engineering.