Scores of big-name apprenticeship levy payers are calling on the government to rename the controversial off-the-job training policy, warning that the “confusing” title is exacerbating high withdrawal rates.
The likes of McDonald’s, B&Q, Wagamama’s, Whitbread, Tesco and Bupa are backing a campaign launched by England’s largest apprenticeship provider, Lifetime Training, to change the terminology.
Writing to the Department for Education in a letter signed by more than 40 large employers and seen by FE Week, outgoing Lifetime Training chief executive Jon Graham said there were many misconceptions about what constitutes off-the-job training.
“We argue that this terminology is out-dated,” Graham wrote. “It relates to models of training which require apprentices to spend time away from the workplace, rather than the work-based approach.
“It does not reflect the current reality of apprenticeship delivery or the learner experience. The result is a perception that this training must be carried out at home or after-hours. This is not the case.”
Off-the-job training issues were a key reason why Lifetime Training was downgraded from Ofsted ‘good’ to ‘requires improvement’ last year.
Inspectors reported that the provider’s 20,000-odd apprentices “too often” spend their own time completing their off-the-job training assignments at home outside of work hours.
Graham’s letter to the DfE stated that misunderstanding around off-the-job requirements leads to learners failing to record off-the-job activity as they – and their managers – are unclear about what can be included.
“For managers, this creates concerns about shift patterns, while learners may be concerned that they have to complete additional work on top of their 30 or 40-hour working week. This lack of clarity is likely to be putting managers off proposing apprenticeships, and learners off pursuing them.”
He added that off-the-job training is often cited as a key reason why around half of all apprentices drop out before completing their programme each year.
‘The terminology is outdated’
Off-the-job training is a legal requirement for an apprenticeship and was introduced following the levy reforms in 2017. It originally required apprentices to spend at least 20 per cent of their normal working hours on off-the-job training, but was last year replaced by a six-hour per week baseline figure.
What qualifies as off-the-job training will vary by apprenticeship and sector, but the training must focus on developing new knowledge, skills and behaviours, and sit outside the day-to-day role, but take place during normal, paid working hours.
Joanne Vincent, the colleague capability and apprenticeship manager at B&Q, told FE Week the terminology was a huge barrier for recruitment and retention of apprentices.
The employer has around 800 apprentices across 44 different apprenticeships and there are 350 managers across the business who “all understand off-the-job differently”.
Vincent estimates that between 10 and 15 potential apprentices do not enrol each month because the “manager doesn’t understand the connotations and what sits behind off-the-job – they just literally believe that they are going to be out of the office for a day a week”.
She added: “If we didn’t label it, and we just classed it as development or learning opportunities, then that might help get rid of some of the ‘50 Shades of Grey’ that sits in the middle.”
Marie Petttitt, a level 2 customer service practitioner at B&Q, told FE Week that across the store she works in there “might be multiple staff members doing apprenticeships at any one time, meaning different off-the-job tasks”, which inevitably creates “confusion”.
“If the language was clearer, this would be one less barrier and help us manage shifts and work more effectively,” she said.
The view that the phrase creates confusion is shared by many training providers across the sector.
Simon Ashworth, director of policy at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said: “The current terminology is outdated and no longer reflects how and where the broad range of training provision that exists across the apprenticeship programme can and does take place.
“This causes confusion for employers and learners alike, so updating the language we use to describe dedicated time spent developing and learning new skills would be extremely welcome and impactful.”
Lifetime Training has put forward three potential alternatives to the term “off-the-job”:
· Dedicated development time
· Learning and development time
· Apprenticeship professional development
A DfE spokesperson said: “Providers are free to use their own terminology when speaking to employers about apprenticeship training. We will consider the views raised in the letter and respond in due course.”