The minimum apprenticeship duration requires reform

Having every apprenticeship last at least a year keeps everything nice and neat for policymakers and trailblazers but comes at a cost to learners, writes Mark Bremner

Having every apprenticeship last at least a year keeps everything nice and neat for policymakers and trailblazers but comes at a cost to learners, writes Mark Bremner

29 Apr 2023, 5:00

The 12-month minimum duration that all apprenticeship standards must meet has become a celebrated cornerstone of England’s modern apprenticeship system. It is an easy shorthand for ministers arguing that the apprenticeships system has improved after 2017.

But it could be argued that the rule lets trailblazers reject proposed standards that could prove useful for businesses. IfATE’s back and forth with firms including the NHS over the level 2 business administration standard is an example of how the minimum duration rule stifles the system.

In addition, the minimum duration rule is also proving an ineffective way to ensure quality. In our experience of working in the sector, multiple providers have been getting away with putting learners through higher-level standards at an unreasonably rapid pace. This allows them to maximise their short-term income but with devasting implications for the learner, employer, and the sector.

We have been inundated with transfer requests, and a quick look through recent Ofsted reports, coupled with a number of providers ‘exiting’ the sector after being found out, adequately demonstrates why this practice is flawed.

The 12-month minimum duration has also meant lower-level apprenticeship standards cannot develop the flexibilities that learners and employers need in sectors with more casual work.

For all these reasons, the rule needs to be reviewed. Instead, the government should introduce a sliding scale approach which bases the minimum duration of an apprenticeship on its level.

Rushing through higher-level standards

Through our experience of delivering ‘Outstanding’ provision between levels 3 and 7, we have come across providers in our subject areas that are delivering training at a suspiciously quick pace.

For instance, we have seen providers offering to fast-track the level 7 senior people professional standard in 18 months. Past the 12-month minimum duration, yes, but far short of the 36 months IfATE says it typically takes to get an apprentice to gateway.

How can you teach learners the necessary skills, knowledge, and behaviours in half the time it ought to take you? Bear in mind, this is from an advertisement for the course; the provider has no idea about each apprentice’s prior learning.

Nor is it an isolated case. We’ve seen scored of operations/departmental manager apprenticeships at 12 to 14 months, instead of the recommended 30.

Flexi-jobs prove the need for flexibility

There must be an equal focus on delivering quality provision at lower levels. However, apprentices and employers concerned with level 2 need much greater flexibility and more support with progression.

The government conceded that the apprenticeship system needed greater flexibility when it created the flexi-job apprenticeship scheme to support sectors where apprentices find it difficult to secure 12 months’ work with one employer.

That same flexible approach should be applied across the system. Level 2 apprenticeships, especially in sectors where casual work is prevalent like hospitality and retail, should not have a 12-month minimum duration. The apprentices need much greater flexibility to learn skills and gain workplace experience.

Another crucial element of lower-level apprenticeships is progression. Level 2 apprentices should be able to pass their qualification then move up through the levels, with each qualification imparting more advanced knowledge, skills, and behaviours. As the complexity of the learning increases, so should the minimum duration.

Importantly, this is a proposal to change the minimum duration, not the maximum. Learners ought to receive a tailored training programme to account for their varying levels of prior learning, or where they simply need more time to pass their course.

A sliding scale of durations

Instead of the mandatory 12-month minimum duration across all standards, there ought to be a sliding scale approach where the duration differs by level.

Our proposal for this scale is as follows, based on a learner with no significant experience or prior learning:

  • Level 2: Nine months
  • Levels 3 and 4: 12 months
  • Level 5: 18 months
  • Levels 6 and 7: 27 months

This allows for flexibility and progression at the lower levels but means apprentices will receive adequate time – and employers will get proper value for money – especially at higher levels.

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  1. Phil Hatton

    The rationale for the 12 month minimum duration was a response by the Apprenticeship Service (DFE) to an Ofsted survey on the quality of apprenticeships that I authored. We had found some apprenticeships being completed in several weeks (signing up people with the required knowledge and skills) and some apprenticeships that were not of an apprenticeship standard. As usual the response was one that could be easily tick boxed (12 month duration) but did not address whether it was worthy of the apprenticeship branding or required quality. A level 2 in areas such as hairdressing or catering requires a great deal of skills and knowledge development while being a barista doesn’t. The IFA and follow on organisations has still not recognised this sufficiently in developing standards that have equivalence. It is wrong to put a duration on anything where a gifted individual can qualify faster. That is why you have inspection and bodies to ensure EPA is thorough.

    • Tim Buchanan

      I would agree with the final comment that outcomes and durations need to be based on results not artificial time limited rules. The 12 month rule also came about as a result of decision made by then Skills Minister John Hayes in response to a major retailer and provider pushing through frameworks in ridiculous short time accrediting skills of existing staff. That was as much about big numbers increased funding contracts to hit numbers promised by Cameron and ineffective contract management by the funding agency.

  2. Tailor

    The clamour for shorter durations is symptomatic of the wider erosion of pay, conditions and job security, or what might be called the Uber effect.

    The more you try to shoehorn all workplace training into being an apprenticeship, the more diluted the notion of apprenticeship becomes.

    On the idea of a fixed duration by level, I’m not sure we’d want a nuclear welding inspection technician qualifying in 12 months instead of 4 years…

    You can’t teach experience, you learn from it!