It’s just over a year since the minimum duration rule was applied, meaning most apprenticeships would have to last at least a year. Phil Hatton looks at whether the rule offers the quality assurance it was hoped for.

I was one of the two authors of the first NVQ back in 1987, which really changed the face of the old style time-served apprenticeships and the way they have subsequently developed.

That first level two NVQ was supposed to be the equivalent of five GCSEs and got away from the concept of annual end-of-course examinations. It was designed for delivery anywhere and wasn’t confined to the classroom.

Therein lies the current problem for this and previous governments who have shared an obsession with large scale growth in the number of apprentices, regardless of what the apprenticeships were in or who the apprentices were.

The mistake that those in government have made is to think that using ‘time-served’ rather than ‘quality of delivery and learning’ is a magic potion to ‘root out poor delivery’.

Some adults taking apprenticeships have already developed substantial amounts of work skills which can accelerate how quickly they demonstrate their technical competence.

They will usually take longer to pass functional skills and other written tests such as technical certificates because they are out of the habit of studying.

However, if the decision has been taken to fund adults with previous experience as apprentices, they should not be forced to take a year by slowing-up their progress and diminishing their enthusiasm for learning, when nine months would do.

Not everything labelled ‘apprenticeship’ should be an apprenticeship

This ‘never mind the quality, think of the duration’ approach does not solve the problem of shoddy provision or work to ensure excellence in delivery, especially if the apprenticeship product is not equitable.

The real crux of the matter is not the time taken to deliver an apprenticeship, but the inequality between the different frameworks.

We are not talking about functional skills, but the heart of the apprenticeship, the vocational qualification.

That first NVQ was not time-bound, but the brightest apprentices took 18 months and most two years to achieve it (anything less and you knew there was something ‘dodgy’ occurring).

That ‘five-GCSE’ equivalent has now completely gone out of the window for a level two apprenticeship.

The simple truth is that not everything labelled ‘apprenticeship’ should be an apprenticeship.

An example that comes up frequently at conferences is the ‘security guard’ apprenticeship.

I had previously inspected excellent provision where training in the main area was delivered in three to four days and people got jobs. Now, even with some beefing up to make a framework, can that be worth the ‘five GCSEs’?

Providers have said they will have longer periods between visits to employers to stretch the delivery time out. Does that sound like quality delivery?

Proposals to get employers involved in designing qualifications already exists — in NVQs

Ofqual and the late QCA have not done the FE sector any favours by allowing the explosion in inequitable level two qualifications. Perhaps the term ‘traineeships’ should have been saved for the lesser content frameworks?

Post Richard Review, the proposals to get employers involved in designing qualifications already exists — in NVQs.

There is a reluctance by lead training organisations to help niche employers, such as newer engineering technologies, develop qualifications because of the low numbers who will need them.

The model of employer development being proposed sounds too much like an earlier failure, when colleges developed thousands of bespoke qualifications validated by other colleges.

But why learn from previous mistakes such as Training and Enterprise Council (TEC) direct NVQs (where TECs quality assured small providers and received countless inadequate inspection judgements) and franchising? These could have informed the rules for ensuring robust subcontracting?

My plea is for the Skills Minister, Matthew Hancock, to not rely solely on those who want to see increases in numbers engaging in apprenticeships, but to see engagement in apprenticeships that will mean something to employers and eventually offer a real alternative to university for our young people.

Phil Hatton, FE improvement consultant at Learning Improvement Service Ltd and former Ofsted HMI

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  1. You are absolutely right Phil and I am so pleased that someone has said this.

    However whilst I agree totally with the thrust of your piece, I would argue that for 2 reasons, quality has in fact improved over the last 12 months.

    Firstly, in our experience, the introduction of Functional Skills has resulted in a clear improvement in the Maths and English abilities of Apprentices, especially when compared to the rightly maligned Key Skills which we now know were totally ineffectual in addressing the UK skills crisis. Our clients tell us that they see a very obvious difference between Apprentices who took Key Skills and those who have achieved FS qualifications, the latter being far more confident and far more able to apply their skills in the workplace.

    Secondly, making the minimum duration 12 months has had the effect of weeding out those providers who were rapidly sheep-dipping large numbers of existing, fully competent employees. The 12 month rule means that this sort of approach becomes far less profitable, particularly since the introduction of Functional Skills which requires significant resource and expertise.

    Clearly there is more to be done and our obsession with start numbers is extremely unhealthy. However, I do feel we should acknowledge the progress that has been made whilst at the same time accepting that there is far more to be done.

    • Around 11 years ago when I conducted the first ever survey of apprenticeships for the Training Standards Council the views of hundreds of employers were extremely negative about the value of key skills. However, after eight years the views on them completely changed and they were ‘raved’ about by the employers who engaged with good providers. The resounding message was that when applied to the area of work they were very worthwhile. The clear message was that employers also wanted to see younger apprentices develop their skills of ‘working together’ and ‘thinking’- hence the recent addition of PLTS (personal learning and thinking skills)to frameworks. However these have been so integrated into NVQs by awarding bodies that it is hard to identify how they are being delivered, and you won’t see much of a mention of their quality in Ofsted reports. There is some excellent practice in delivering them by providers who have chosen to ‘extract’ them and this needs to be spread more widely. As for functional skills the real shame is that our youngsters have not achieved a decent mathematics and English GCSE before leaving school, and that for far too many of those who have managed to get their GCSEs providers opt for the exemption route to a framework rather than the challenge of studying them at a higher level (which would encourage their progression onto more advanced study).

      This could be the time when apprenticeships really come into their own as the preferred alternative route for young people to aspire to higher education through a work-based pathway.

      So why is it when there is this alternative route to University, and young people do not want to saddle themselves with debt, that their participation in apprenticeships is actually falling? In my informed view (from talking to several hundred young people) it is simply due to the lack of readily available impartial advice to parents and young people, with thousands of youngsters having being told that the raising of participation to 17 means they must stay at school an extra year – unless they don’t get their required GCSE grades, when they then receive very little advice from their school careers people in mid-August when results come out. It is almost perverse that the best colleges and providers learnt years ago that giving impartial advice meant that learners ended up on programmes that suited them, rather than simply getting ‘bums on seats’ with the later consequence of high drop out – if only schools had more of a moral conscience about their actions. Colleges and providers are seeing these young people as we discuss this, scrambling for something to do now their schools look to ignore their own failures and maintain Ofsted grades by creaming off the ones who are most likely to get A levels. Hopefully these young people will end up on courses that really engage them, or there will be consequences for FE in early drop out.

  2. Louise Kempster

    This article raises some good questions as it is becoming increasingly clear that a one size fits all approach isn’t the best fit for apprenticeships. Working for a provider I find it interesting that the delivery is focused on what learners need to develop and yet the timing given doesn’t always reflect that. In some cases able students can even be held back by the limits of the framework regardless of the quality of provision. Thought provoking. While a minimum time served may improve the balance of provision where training providers weren’t providing a good service, shouldn’t we be taking the students’ needs into consideration first and foremost? If only we could move targets away from profit making and numbers and base it around student feedback instead. I have a feeling the industry might be turned on its head.

  3. I can only agree with this, I did a 6 year Apprenticeship when this was recognised as the means to obtaining the skills and qualifications recognised by employers as a Trade and it was not a College that signed off the Apprenticeship when I obtained the requisite qualifications but the my employer after I had served an additional period of time as a journeyman.
    Have we improved on this over the years? The answer unfortunately has to be no, Apprenticeships have been devalued due to political interference and now exist for most occupations including those previously considered as semiskilled as in the example for the ‘security guard’.
    I delivered one of the first NVQ’s in the late 80’s and I considered that this was suitable training to gain recognition in an occupation but it was not an apprenticeship, the mistake came when everything that contained an NVQ was called an Apprenticeship.
    The solution is to change the name, yes retain Apprenticeship for real trades at level 3 and possibly use Technical Apprentices for higher levels and traineeship or similar for lower levels.
    Yes we could deliver a traineeship to a security guard within 6 weeks and this would reflect what the employer and employee need.