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UK parody of apprenticeship not a way forward

August 15th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

Having spent much time in Germany working as a researcher around vocational educatio0n and training I am a big fan of apprenticeships. True, the German dual system of apprenticeships has its weaknesses, but in general if offers a respected and high quality training to over half the age cohort. As Wikipedia explains,  there are some 342 recognized trades (Ausbildungsberufe) where an apprenticeship can be completed. They include for example doctor’s assistant, banker, dispensing optician, plumber or oven builder. The dual system means that apprentices spend about 50-70% of their time in companies and the rest in formal education. Depending on the profession, they may work for three to four days a week in the company and then spend one or two days at a vocational school (Berufsschule). This is usually the case for trade and craftspeople. For other professions, usually which require more theoretical learning, the working and school times take place blockwise e.g. in a 12–18 weeks interval.

I have also long bemoaned the poor apprenticeship system in the UK, which was largely abolished with the demise of the Training Boards in the 1970s. Many young people are forced into inappropriate university courses which provide poor training for their career and result in large personal debts. So in theory I should be happy with today’s House of Commons library research, as reported in the Guardian newspaper, which shows that the coalition exceeded its target of creating 203,200 apprenticeships for people over 19 in the 2010-11 financial year, creating 257,000 new apprentices. And I am sure that the headline will be seized on by apprenticeship advocates in Germany and other parts of the world as welcome news that the UK has indeed at last re-established a reputable apprenticeship training system.

Sadly this is not so. The research shows that the biggest increases in apprenticeships are in health and social care and retail; indeed one of the most dramatic increases was in the “cleaning and support service industry”, where 1,930 apprentices were created in the academic year 2010-11, compared with 360 in the previous academic year. In other words the majority of the apprenticeships have been created in low skills service industries.

One of the major problems for comparative researchers is how apprenticeship is defined in the UK. Apprentices are defined as paid employees who gain practical skills in the workplace as well as receiving training outside work. In other words any programme which provides external training for employees as well as some form of practical skills training can be counted as an apprentice and therefore employers are able to draw down subsidies for the training. This goes some way towards explaining why the largest increases were for ‘apprentices’ aged over 25 where numbers nearly quadrupled, from 36,300 to 121,100. And perhaps the most telling figure is in the average length of the so called apprenticeships. In Germany most apprenticeships take three years to complete. But in the UK, apprenticeships lasting longer than a year rose by under 2% while those lasting less than a year increased by over 30% on 2009-10.Overall, the proportion of apprenticeships lasting longer than a year dropped from 47% to 41%. Indeed many appear to have been shorter than 12 weeks!

Whilst any increase in work based training is welcome, the new programmes being introduced in the UK are a parody of the idea of apprenticeship. And sadly the credibility of apprenticeship training as a whole is likely to be reduced, both in the eyes of young people and from the viewpoint of employers.

2 Responses to “UK parody of apprenticeship not a way forward”

  1. Thats a very informative comment about the current news from England on apprenticeship. For me it gets clearer now that the understanding about what makes apprenticeship is rather different across Europe. What would be needed is a common understanding on the quality of learning in the context of work organisations. When there are defined as narrow as in the said cases, the concept of apprenticeship is blurred. Therefore the concept of apprenticeship needs more European clarification so that it can stay as a pathway for both individuell professional and of organisational learning. The question is how can we make more progress in that understanding what apprenticeship is or not! It would be a good idea when European research networks like VETNET http://vetnet.mixxt.org/ or INAP; Innovative apprenticeship network: http://www.innovative-apprenticeship.net/ could collectively discuss this point and formulate some kind of quality criteria for apprenticeships! I myself as convenor in Vetnet will take up this issue for further discussion.

  2. Graham Attwell says:

    Yes I would very much agree with you that more discussion is needed to get an agreement of just what constitutes apprenticeship. However I would also add that there is an understanding in the UK amongst researchers and I guess many employers. The new definition has been introduced for policy hype reasons – so that the government can claim it is doing something about training. And there is considerable opposition to the way they are downgrading the apprenticeship brand for short term political posturing.