Employers free to call anything they want an ‘apprenticeship’ — despite government plans for new laws to protect the brand

Employers have escaped the reach of a government clampdown on “misuse” of the word apprenticeship, it has emerged.

Companies who run their own unfunded courses and label them ‘apprenticeships’ will continue to be able to deliver such programmes in less than a year without fear of a proposed Magistrates’ Court prosecution and fine.

Even firms that run internal ‘apprenticeship’ programmes with government funding not specifically for the official scheme will remain free from strict rules that apply to BIS-funded apprenticeship provision — such as the 12-month minimum duration.

However, colleges and independent learning providers would be subject to the legislation put forward in a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) consultation launched yesterday, prompting a warning that the employers’ exemption could place the interests of learners at risk.

A BIS spokesperson, who said the “vast majority” of training providers were “successful in delivering excellent training,” defended the exemption for employers. He said: “The aim of this legislation is to affect the behaviour of some providers at the margins who detract from the overall positive picture.”

The three-week consultation ends on August 19 and aims to outlaw providers using the term ‘apprenticeship’ or ‘apprentice’ for any course or training in England other than a government-funded apprenticeship.

It is hoped the results of the consultation, which asks for examples of poor apprenticeship practice among providers not funded for the programme, will add to the government’s case to give apprenticeships the same legal protection as a degree in the Enterprise Bill — due to come before Parliament in the autumn.

But exempting employers could endanger the interests of apprentices, warned a spokesperson for the Association of Employment and Learning Providers.

“If this means that without fear of sanction an employer could pass off training as an apprenticeship, which didn’t follow the official guidelines of an apprenticeship, then the term could remain not fully protected,” he said.

“The danger with exempting employers is that it might cause confusion when a prime concern should be protecting the interests of the apprentice.”

However, Maritime Skills Alliance secretary and former 14-year college governor Iain Mackinnon (pictured right) welcomed the employer exemption.Iain Mackinnon

“It focuses the legal penalty where it matters most, on rogue training providers,” he said.  “I can think of one very large international employer which runs its own ‘apprenticeship’, to a high standard, but with no Skills Funding Agency subsidy.

“Why should government get in their way, or increase costs to the taxpayer by forcing it into the government system for no benefit, or waste time having a scrap about it, when the real problem is rogue providers?”

He added: “Some of the detail of the proposal needs work, because it looks like some employers can call their programme an apprenticeship but the training provider working with them can’t, but overall this looks a neat way forward.”

BIS has previously given examples of poor provision labelled an apprenticeship despite not being publicly-funded as such. These included where the provider never even visited the learner’s workplace or where the provider refused to hand over candidate applications to employers when they tried to look for an alternative provider.

“Government’s high profile commitment to achieve 3m more apprenticeship starts in the Parliament will continue to increase the status and focus on apprenticeships, and the quality that they offer,” it says in the consultation document.

“However, this also increases the risk that a small number of training providers could use the term ‘apprenticeship’ to refer to a course of learning which does not meet these strict quality measures.

“Employers, parents and prospective apprentices could therefore be misled into thinking they were being offered a high quality government-funded apprenticeship, when this is not the case.

“Further, the rights and reputations of training providers who do offer statutory apprenticeships could be undermined.”



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  1. Apprenticeships should mean the same thing to learners, training providers and employers. Employers, especially those running small businesses, often have a limited understanding of vocational education, so they refer to in-house training as apprenticeships. And then we wonder why so many are penalised for incorrectly paying the national minimum wage at apprenticeship rates. Let’s get it clear for everyone!

  2. Let’s keep a sense of proportion here: this is a sideshow. A useful reform, but a modest one. There was never any prospect that banning misuse of the term ‘apprentice’ would transform the scene.

    The risk with the initial announcement was always that the Government would get distracted by the complexity, and waste time on it. Who gains what if Nick Boles goes into hand-to-hand combat with an excellent international company, deeply committed to training, which calls its people ‘apprentices’ but chooses not to get entangled in the Government’s bureaucracy? Who gains what if BIS challenges the livery companies, which unquestionably got to the word ‘apprentice’ some centuries before even the Board of Trade was created? This is Government intelligently playing the 80/20 principle: the proposals address the largest part of the problem and sidestep distracting entanglement with the rest.

    The big story round these parts is that the great majority of companies, large and small, do not train apprentices, and many of them (not all) could and should. I want the best brains in Government focused on that one. Let’s move on.

  3. LRoding

    The government are fudging the issue; no surprise there then. It is disingenuous to suggest that having a single term which means different things to employers as compared to training providers will help anyone at all. If employer schemes are so good, surely they would meet the criteria suggested by this reform?

    • They’re probably better because they are not crippled with the expensive and extraneous irrelevancies required by Government, they are designed to be efficient and effective and I bet the powers that be wouldn’t want anyone making comparisons – because flaws and weaknesses in the Govt designed programme would be exposed for all to see – and exempting them removes them from that public scrutiny.

  4. The term ‘apprenticeship’ has been around a very long time and many senior managers in major companies have been apprentices. The devaluation of the term has come from widening the net of what occupations are suitable for apprenticeships, rather than making the new areas embraced straightforward training programmes. An intermediate apprenticeship should be equivalent to 5 GCSEs at grade C and an advanced apprenticeship to 2/3 A levels. That makes sense to an engineer. Chasing numbers above all else has been, and will continue to be, the biggest threat to the brand. If I were a company who did not take government funding (often because of the hoops to be jumped through and qualifications not meeting needs), what would be wrong in calling my internal training programme an apprenticeship? It is as enforceable as the term learner or student.

    Government needs to ensure quality by the level of training involved rather than time constraints. Call the training programmes that have insufficient content and skills levels something else (traineeships could have been good) and stop chasing absurd numbers. Three million new apprenticeships, as promised in the election, will do little good but could contribute to harming the brand even further.

    As it is many employers are not impressed by those with degrees, citing a lack of work skills, poor English and maths skills and qualifications that are not linked closely enough to the needs of industry. We need to get apprenticeships right first (they are in some sectors) and then look at suitable higher progression linked to the needs of industry.

  5. Peter Cobrin

    I remember great concern being expressed by someone from the Army who I met at one of Adrian Bailey’s Select Committees at the 12 month rule being applied to their apprentices on the basis that their recruits were being “trained” 27/7