Critical Apprenticeships: The Wrights and the Wrongs of Passage

This critical article was written in 2016 to review five years of policy documents on apprenticeships in Britain and the monumental failures in this area. We live in a time when the meaning of language in policy-land has become so eroded that a collective sense of confusion raises its head when words like ‘apprenticeship’ are thrown about. It seems that there is a common puzzlement now as to what it means in practice….


We have heard a great deal about apprenticeships over the last years, and indeed, as economic doctrine steadily rolls in like a harr from the sea, we discover apprenticeships being presented under a bold educational flag. In this article I am going to ask ‘Are the majority of us having cheap unskilled labour for big firms re-packaged and sold back to us as skill providing foundations and futures to careers ?’.  I shall be trying to tackle this by presenting an indepth analysis of government reports and other sources created on the subject over the last five years.


Where possible, the reports and papers have been embedded in the article or links provided to them so that the reader can evaluate the original texts for themselves.  Also, the discussion will explore some parts of the larger economic backdrop to provide a more meaningful context for us to place the exploration of apprenticeships in this time.


The Roots of the Term

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word ‘apprentice’ has its roots in the 13th century Old French ‘aprentiz’ meaning “someone learning”; also the adjective of “unskilled, inexperienced” from the modern French ‘aprendre’ meaning “to learn; to teach”, which is contracted from the Latin ‘apprehendere’ which relates ‘to apprehend’.


The idea contained in the word is one many associate with the opportunities for an individual to be taken into a practical environment and to learn under someone who has achieved mastery in that trade or practice. Thus at an appropriate point, the apprentice – who gets training and a certain pay – eventually becomes fully fledged in their craft and thus independently skilled with all they need to take their place as a journeyman/woman in the trade or practice.


This idea of apprenticeship no longer seems the case in post-industrial Britain. What was once associated with the concepts of ‘internship’ and ‘apprenticeship’ has now been dramatically eroded by corporate companies and others passing off dull repetitive tasks and exploitation of cheap labour as capacity and capability building opportunities.


Maslow’s Wages: Sen’s Unfreedom

According to the Forget Me Not Study brought together by the National Union of Students, apprenticeship pay is ‘pitifully low’ with the rate for those aged from 16 to 18 and those aged 19 or over who are in their first year at £2.73 per hour. So in practice, this means that if an apprentice works a 35 hour week they earn only £95.55.



On 17th March 2015 the government set the new apprenticeship rate of pay at £3.30 per hour. UNISON puts forward that the average pay for apprentices is £170 per week, and that this equates to £4.25 an hour. (


The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published the ‘Apprenticeship Pay Survey’ in 2014 revealing that in some industries apprentices were regularly found to be paid less than the minimum wage:


“Younger apprentices were more likely to be earning less than the NMW, with nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of Level 2 and Level 3 16-18 year olds having non-compliant pay levels, compared with 20 per cent of 19-20 year olds, 17 per cent of those aged 21-24, and eight per cent of those aged 25 or older.”


(Page 28, BIS Research Paper No 207 Apprenticeship pay survey December 2014: Retrieved from internet 22.11.2015:


The report published that various groups of Level 2 and Level 3 apprentices were more likely to be paid less than the National Minimum Wage and reported:

  • Apprentices who worked unpaid overtime hours (27 per cent);
  • Apprentices who did not have a written contract (28 per cent);
  • Apprentices who received tips from customers (29 per cent).


The Forget Me Not report labels minimum wage for apprentices as exploitative as they are not enough to cover basic living expenses. They argue for the Government to scrap the apprentice minimum wage, and suggest that all apprentices should be entitled to at least the national minimum wage (NMW) for their age.


In 2014, the National Society of Apprentices (NSoA) Travel Research Key Finding report ( raised issues about the time and travel pressures that the apprentice faced in trying to earn their trade.  The following are excerpts from the report:


“When doing my apprenticeship I am not financially able to just work this job, I also work part time at a supermarket 12 hours a week on top of my 42 hour apprenticeship work load. This enables me no time to complete course work out of work, but it is essential I keep both jobs to ensure I can pay my bills at the end of the month” Project Management Apprentice


“It’s hard because I spend over £25 a week on traveling and I only get £86.40 a week. I never really have much money after buying basic things.” An apprentice



Maslows Hierarchy of Needs
Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

If we are thinking in terms of development and expanding the capabilities of individuals through an educational route, then living and taking part in the apprenticeship process must also be viewed from a logistical perspective. Abraham Maslow famously described a fundamental hierarchy of needs which require addressing before we can move onto dealing with more complex needs such as esteem and self-actualisation.


Basic life needs such as food, drink and shelter are represented in a significant way by financial income in the urban setting as we are reliant on the human ecology, no longer having the ability to draw from the land. Sufficient wages are thus needed before education and training can be engaged in.


I choose to contextualise the financial means of an individual in terms of a ‘process of expanding the freedoms that people enjoy’ as Amartya Sen put it in his book ‘Development As Freedom‘. Whilst focusing on freedoms and development in a broader and more pervasive sense, Amartya Sen does acknowledge that increases in poor people’s incomes contribute to the expansion of their freedoms. A wage sufficient to take part in educational, economic and social activity is a critical element to a successful apprenticeship.


Sir Michael Wilshaw Head of Ofsted
Sir Michael Wilshaw Head of Ofsted

Corporate Delivery of the Programme

Critical in an apprenticeship context is the chance to learn alongside a seasoned hand a complete set of skills through ‘learning by doing’. It is the opportunity to be in proximity with and tap into a knowledge built out of established practice which is the vital spark that separates an apprenticeship from manual labour.


In many of the settings examined and described in the reports done, the most rudimentary activities are being passed off as teaching and learning, with very little – if any – possibilities for advancement.



In the Ofsted Report ‘Apprenticeships: developing skills for future prosperity’ released in October 2015, they detailed “apprentices in the food production, retail and care sectors who were simply completing their apprenticeship by having existing low-level skills, such as making coffee, serving sandwiches or cleaning floors, accredited.”


The trend seems to be that people are shunted into many bulk delivery arrangements that are provided by corporate companies rather than small to medium sized enterprises. As we shall be seeing later in this article, the major reports which review the apprenticeship schemes pick up on themes like larger companies dominating the landscape, complicated bureaucratic processes for Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs) to manage, and training provider’s adding to the confusion of the delivery of the apprenticeship.


Some might argue that any corporate enterprise is badly situated to provide the kind of learning environment and chances for self development which the country and people need. The fact that shareholder primacy (The Fiduciary Responsibility of the CEO to maximise profits made for the shareholders) is the dominant foundation of such institutions seriously limits the kind of sociably responsible behaviour that can be proffered by them. In simple terms, companies on the stockmarket are legally obliged to put profit before any other considerations.


In a 1970 New York Times Magazine article the free-market economic prophet Milton Friedman shared his thoughts about the obligation of business to address societal problems “There is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engage in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” (Milton Friedman, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits,” New York Times Magazine, 13 September, 1970.)

This is not the case with SMEs as they are owned by individuals generally rooted in the community they operate in rather than exist as concerns based in a cloud of diffuse shareholders spread across the world and having their bases operating from tax havens such as the City of London and Luxembourg. Thus smaller more accountable businesses are free of the legal obligation to operate according to a profit principle and tend to yield more tax paying for the infrastructure which helps them operate as a business.


What I am suggesting here is that locally owned, independent businesses are better suited to realise the social responsibility of training, education and advancement of individuals as apprentices. Unfortunately the bureaucratic costs and lack of the same supports which are offered to large businesses make it an inhospitable environment for SMEs to get involved as much as they would like.



The Straw Man Apprenticeship

“A ‘straw man’ is a common form of argument and an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponents argument, while actually refuting an argument which was not advanced by that opponent.” Wikipedia


So where has the traditional life station of apprenticeship been uncoupled from the holistic development of people ? Where artificial league tables and ranking have been created we find ourselves suffering under an imposition of a hierarchy on different types and fields of knowledge; such that some areas find themselves being massively devalued (essentially by retraction of support and recognition), and other areas being given status and privilege over others.


A chief example in education has been the privileging of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects over the humanities. Whilst STEM subjects have had more funding diverted towards them in a bid to engineer a more financially lucrative economy, we find that humanities have had their funding slashed as the rhetoric of economic impact and outcomes fails to acknowledge alternative methods of valuing knowledge in our society. The traditional and self-attained types of knowledge are now being displaced for controlled and mandated forms of learning, and these all come demarcated at a financial price.


What knowledge and skills you are valued as having define the opportunities which become open to you as an individual.  As recruitment agencies increasingly use computer algorithms to read CVs, people are being technocratically excluded from participating in economic opportunities.  An anecdote is a story I heard of where a competent academic made applications to a local supermarket to see if they got offered a job, but they did not pass the recruitment algorithm. As education is being remodeled as a business opportunity, we can see a push towards the general higher demand for formalised forms of qualification being introduced in the introduction of the requirement for a degree to enter the police force.


There are many hazards to this kind of remodeling of education into a profit opportunity. The one I will draw on to help paint the backdrop to the discussions on apprenticeships is to move around a commonly heard quip – ‘so many people have degrees now that they are being devalued; we hear of people with degrees working in fast food chains’…. I dont think this is the major concern.  More significant is the effect that if you do not have a degree or some qualification, you are being ruled out of the most menial of job opportunities.  Our culture is moving towards an increasingly stratified and demarcated structure.


Professor Locke and Professor Spender suggest in their book ‘Confronting Managerialism‘ we can shift our attentions towards an emerging caste system that is manifesting itself in a management and ‘consultancy’ culture esconsed in bureaucracy. As big business and technology advances so the hollowing out of traditional work places seems to parallel this with the replacement of vernacular skillsets based on use of durable, repairable materials and designs with built-in-redundancy.


As these corporate environments take hold we find increasingly that what work available is diluted into fragmentary and abstracted tasks which on their own do not bear a skilled relationship to the product or process which is the ultimate task. The division of labour now extends its reach deep into the human experience. We are left hobbled by a 21st century factory farm type of employability which, instead of maturing capable individuals who might then evolve as an entrepreneur who employs other people in a local-global economic ecology, are trained into conditions of dependence and helplessness which can be taken advantage of by unthinking and uncaring ‘market forces’.


The production of scarcity is a real concern as we try to maintain an economy open enough for people and communities to prosper.  As an example we can look on our doorsteps and find supermarkets bringing about the loss of more jobs than they create. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) in their 2003 ‘Ghost Town Britain II’ report, showed that between 1995 and 2000 we lost roughly one fifth of our local shops and services including post-offices, banks, butchers and grocers.



In a study carried out for the Federation of Small Businesses (December 2006), supermarkets bring about “a decrease in the number of convenience retailers operating in the town centre; an increase in the number of vacant units and corresponding floorspace; a broad shift in convenience expenditure away from the existing town centre retailers to those operating the new supermarket development; a significant decline in the level of business activities undertaken by existing retailers. This is attributable in the main to competition from the supermarket; and a general acknowledgement in respect of a decline in the overall number of shoppers frequenting the traditional town centre.”



When Big Businesses Buy In

So when big companies buy into the apprenticeship rhetoric suggesting they are training people to get into work, is it not an entropic enterprise if we are thinking about public value (the value that an organization contributes to society) ? Are they getting subsidies for underpaying people to stack shelves whilst doing their level best to avoid paying tax thus externalising their costs on society whilst harvesting the profit ?


There has apparently been a sudden rise in adults taking up apprenticeships, and questions have been raised as to whether large companies are using this as an opportunity to get government money to train their existing staff. An example is where Asda have announced plans for 25,000 apprenticeship roles for staff already employed at the supermarket.


Professor Ewart Keep wrote a report called ‘Rethinking Apprenticeships’ in 2011 ( and publicly commented in FE Week on the stretching of the term apprenticeships into new framings:


“Post-25 age apprenticeships, in almost every other country, would be regarded as adult training/re-training, not as apprenticeships, as this term/form of training is restricted to initial Vocational Education Training. As a means of chasing government targets for expansion of apprenticeships, 25+ provision makes perfect sense. In every other respect it is probably not a good idea and dilutes an already ‘confused’ apprenticeship brand/offer. I have no problem with offering training/re-training to the post-25 age group, but it isn’t really an apprenticeship in any meaningful sense.”


I have no doubt in my mind that if we are to reach towards any type of understanding which is to aid a rational analysis of the situation that exists, we must necessarily involve the social, the economic and the educational perspectives in equal proportion. The economic zeitgeist is riddled with ideological thrusts which are borne off the back of a period which is heavily influenced by a neo-liberal school of thought championed by individuals such as Milton Friedman mentioned earlier.


Deconstructing what the calls for growth, deregulation and ‘increased investment in the economy’ actually mean in practice require fact checking and evidencing. Pairing up what has been said and what has actually happened is an essential part of constructing atrue picture of the situation as it is on the ground. Looking at the reports which were commissioned to have influence in the area of apprenticeships should help us arrive at more informed conclusions…..


On the 22nd October 2015, the Chief of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, was reported to declare that too few apprenticeships are delivering the most needed skills and that some employers are wasting public funds. This public statement was made in light of the launching of the latest Ofsted report on apprenticeships. At the meeting of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in the West Midlands he said it was “little short of a disaster….our report today lays bare what many have long suspected…..despite the increase in numbers, very few apprenticeships are delivering the professional, up-to-date skills in the sectors that need them most.”


Michael Gove
Michael Gove

2011: The Long View; A Context For Present Day

Sometime back, Michael Gove – the then Secretary of State for Education – invited Professor Alison Margaret Wolf, Baroness Wolf of Dulwich CBE, to produce a review of vocational education. She is a well known British economist, and the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London.
In March 2011 she produced ‘The Wolf Report; Review of Vocational Education’ ( which had the foreword written by Michael Gove. What follows are extracts and notes from the report, as well as links to the original itself. From the Foreword by Michael Gove:


“Last year I asked Professor Alison Wolf to help us confront this long-standing problem by reviewing pre-19 vocational education. She has responded with this brilliant, and ground-breaking, report….


….She starts by confronting us with some stark truths. Far too many 14-16 year olds are doing courses with little or no value because performance tables incentivise schools to offer these inadequate qualifications. As a result between a quarter and a third of young people between the ages of 16-19 are, right now, either doing nothing at all or pursuing courses which offer no route to higher levels of education or the prospect of meaningful employment. She is correct to say these young people are being deceived and that this is not just unacceptable but morally wrong….


….Professor Wolf argues that we need a wholesale realignment of incentives. Performance tables, funding systems and regulatory compliance are all pushing in the wrong direction – against the better judgement of teachers and lecturers working in our schools and colleges.“


What is remarkable here is that so consistently the recommendations which were commissioned and asked for have been ignored in place of increasing the feature of performance tables, constricted funding systems and regulatory compliance in the field of education. The work and informed opinions of academics has been outright ignored it seems, however, it remains as a part of public record for everyone to access.


In this article I am picking out some of the key recommendations which have bearing on the apprencticeships issue, both identifying what advice was proffered in 2011 and what we can see was acted upon over the coming years through to 2015:



Recommendation 8

“The Department for Education and The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) should evaluate the extent to which the current general education components of apprenticeship frameworks are adequate for 16-19 year old apprentices, many of whom may wish to progress to further and higher education. It does not appear appropriate, given this Government’s commitment to progression through apprenticeship, that frameworks should, as at present, be drawn up entirely by Sector Skills Councils, who conceive their role in relation to current employers, and current, occupationally specific job requirements. The review of frameworks should also consider ways to increase flexibility and responsiveness to local labour markets and conditions.”


Tail wag the dog

Sector Skills Councils

“The SSCs – which are non-statutory – have become, in the last few years, de facto designers, as well as de facto first-line accreditors, of almost all non-HE qualifications other than the academic ones. In some cases, they play a very active part in deciding which awarding bodies will be allowed to offer a qualification in a given area. They were also central to the design of the Diploma.


SSCs exist to represent and articulate the view of employers. However, they do not develop organically, in the way that trade and professional bodies do, but are instead created by government, and largely funded by it. (The SSCs replaced National Training Organisations, which replaced Industry Lead Bodies, which replaced Industry Training Boards.)


This structure is very unusual by international standards, as is the SSCs’ formal role in accreditation (and, indeed, design) of formal qualifications. The usual pattern is for employer groups to advise government. SSCs also develop apprenticeship frameworks, and decide precisely which nationally-accredited qualifications may be used within a given framework.”


The concern raised by Professor Wolf that the employers interests are given primacy in the vocational skills learning context highlights an important area of moral hazard. Moral hazard refers to something known as a principal–agent problem, where one party, called an agent, acts on behalf of another party, called the principal.


The agent usually has more information about their actions or intentions than does the principal, and also, the principal usually cannot completely monitor the agent. The agent may have an incentive to act inappropriately (from the viewpoint of the principal) if the interests of the agent and the principal are not aligned.


Thinking about the situation of vocational skills training and the interests of the Employers being represented by Sector Skills Councils, we can think in terms where the principles are the apprentices seeking to make their way in a society, and the agents are the Sector Skills Councils and the companies who – in theory – are there to develop the opportunities for the apprentices. Without having the learner’s wants, rights and needs attended to in equal terms, then an asymmetric situation arises where there can be capture of the educational process by commercial interests. This could lead to a situation where apprenticeships could be exploited purely to the advantage of the bottom line of businesses.


Recommendation 15

“The Department for Education and The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) should review contracting arrangements for apprenticeships, drawing on best practice internationally, with a view to increasing efficiency, controlling unit costs and driving out any frictional expenditure associated with brokerage or middleman activities that do not add value.”


This is an interesting and important appeal to look at what works beyond our shores. The focus on avoiding people or agencies injecting themselves into the process sounds like a healthy impetus to avoid bureaucracy heavy, exclusive processes which lock out genuine businesses and providers. The greater the layers of middle-management, the greater the entropy of the system.



Recommendation 27

“At college and school level the assessment and awarding processes used for vocational awards should involve local employers on a regular basis. Awarding bodies should demonstrate, when seeking recognition, how employers are involved directly in development and specification of qualifications.”


This recommendation not to estrange the employers and people in the trades, nor alienate the valuable knowledge which they hold from the development of the qualifications seems like a sensible decision to make. Setting up the accreditation process to exclude the living expertise of people who form part of a community of practice outside of the academic context can represent demarcation and even appropriation of who can engage in the practice of what is meaningful in skills aquisition.


From page 21 of the report Professor Wolf describes elements of the situation as she saw it in 2011, which these excerpts illustrate: “Meanwhile apprenticeship programmes, which become ever more important as our youth labour market implodes, remain too rare, and an increasing proportion are offered to older people, not to teenagers. As explained below, I estimate that at least 350,000 young people in a given 16-19 cohort are poorly served by current arrangements. Their programmes and experiences fail to promote progression into either stable, paid employment or higher level education and training in a consistent or an effective way”


“There is no formal definition of ‘vocational education’ in England, and the term is applied to programmes as different as the highly selective, competitive and demanding apprenticeships offered by large engineering companies and the programmes which recruit highly disaffected young people with extremely low academic achievement. Some submissions to the review were concerned that using the term ‘vocational’ for the latter was wrong, and damaged the former. Others insisted that low-achievers needed vocational programmes and vocational qualifications and argued for their protection.”(page 23)


“Apprenticeship aside, fewer and fewer young people are in employment; education participation rates are at record levels; and among those young people who are looking for work, unemployment rates are high.” (Page 25)


Doug Richard
Doug Richard

2012: Enter The Dragon; Doug Richard’s Recommendations

Doug Richard is an American entrepreneur based in England known for his appearances on TV show Dragons’ Den and a catalogue of businesses. In 2012 he was invited to author the ‘Richard Review of Apprenticeships’ (, a government review of the apprenticeship system supported by all political parties. What follows are a series of excerpts highlighting some elements which Doug Richard saw important to bring to the foreground.


“At its heart an apprenticeship is a form of education. It requires a job, which requires an employer, but it is still a form of education, which implies that a key beneficiary is the apprentice and that as a society we have an obligation to support its delivery. But the employer also benefits and it is in their interest to have apprentices.


Many elements of the historical apprenticeship remain true today: the apprentice still needs to be employed and trained to develop the skills to do the job. But the notion of the test – the moment when the apprentice can show that they have “graduated” to the next level – has gone. In its place we have a welter of qualifications that, like stepping stones, serve to support the apprentice’s progress often without ever declaring their final competency. That must change.


And, whereas historically, an apprenticeship was at its very heart a relationship between an employer and an apprentice, too often that is not the case today – apprenticeships instead becoming a government-led training programme, shaped by training professionals not employers. The relationship between an employer and an apprentice must once again rise to the fore.” (Page 3)


Here is a valuable discussion of a situation where rather than an individual becoming educated via an employer to a qualified competency they end up in a position where they are captured by training professionals/providers in what seems like an unending and fragmentary collection of certifications.



“Simply enough, not all instances of training on a job are apprenticeships. Apprenticeships require a new job role, a role that is new to the individual and requires them to learn a substantial amount before they can do that job effectively. An apprenticeship without a job is a form of vocational training. An apprenticeship in an old job is on the job training. There must be a job and the job role must be new.”(Page 4)


Here the point seems of critical significance in trying to get back to a tangible understanding of what an apprenticeship means in actuality. Rather than re-labelling existing roles, or the offering of education without an income, the issue of concern here is clearly placed in not distorting what apprenticeships are.



“We have overly detailed specifications for each qualification, extraordinarily detailed occupational standards, and a structure to apprenticeships which is rigidly enshrined in law, which attempts to ensure accomplishment, but inadvertently constrains innovation and flexibility in teaching.” (Page 5)
“the intricate detail of today’s occupational standards, or the micro-level prescription of today’s vocational qualifications, which drive a focus on continuous bureaucratic box-ticking and assessment and obscure the real task of an apprenticeship – to teach new knowledge and skills, and demonstrate to future employers that an apprentice can do their job.” (Page 6)


The mention of the bureaucratisation of the learning process is a very relevant point where increasingly there is an awareness that various people learn via different routes. Those involved in the teaching process are being told simultaneously to innovate and creative whilst having increasing amounts of impact measurements, key performance indicators, assessments and paperwork heaped on their plates. This double bind seems to regularly rear its head where managerialism can inject itself into pedagogical situation.



“The Government’s role is to lead the contest, set the judging criteria, and ensure a process which minimises the risks of politicisation and maximises rigour, trust and transparency.” (Page 7)


Here the notion of minimising the politicisation of forms of education, which is an entirely distracting influence, is highlighted. When used as a political tool, the impartiality which should be inherent in learning contexts become distorted by reactionary and manipulative forces which accompany such arenas. Trust and transparency are raised as important components of the scenarios, which obviously help protect against exploitation and incompetence.


“Continuous and time consuming assessment, driven by paper-based tests, accumulated ‘evidence’ and assessors with a vested interest in apprentices passing the test, demeans the apprentice’s accomplishment. Instead, there needs to be a test that demonstrates that the apprentice can take the knowledge and expertise they have gained and apply it in a real world context to a new, novel problem. The final test and validation must be holistic, in that it seeks to test the full breadth of the relevant competencies not merely the incremental progression of the apprentice. That may take the form of a project or an assessment in front of an examiner.” (Page 7)


This questioning about how the measurement of the apprentices take place echoes with the inflexibility of our culture to look at valuing knowledge in non-traditional ways. The overloading of learning with bureaucratic practices seems like creating the ideal training ground of bureaucrats rather than a sound framework contextual with the individual subject. The compulsion to blanket impose these practices on all cultures is absurd for anyone but the administrators amongst us. A look beyond those means of valuing what people have picked up from a holistic process presents itself as an important step to take particularly in settings which are less to do with how well an individual can compose an essay and more to do with how safely someone can fit some plumbing (for example).


“And the examiners should be neutral parties with no interest in the outcome, drawn from the ranks of employers as well as educators, since employers themselves are best able to assess what makes an apprentice employable. In this regard we can learn from our continental peers.” (Page 8)


As we read in ‘The Wolf Report; Review of Vocational Education’ earlier, here we find a reiteration of the need to incorporate employers with accumulated expertise in delivering the practical realities of a trade in making the decisions of how learning should be measured. Doug Richard highlights the continental perspectives which better value the vocational knowledge in its situated contexts.


“Achieving a good level of maths and English, a more stretching level than many apprentices currently attain, should be a pre-requisite for completion. There are certain skills that predicate success in modern society. They must allow the maths and English to be taught in a real world context. it is the Government’s continued responsibility to fund this teaching as it falls clearly within its role in providing this essential education.” (Page 8)


The recommendation that mathematics and English literacies are built into every apprenticeship via Government funded education seems in line with policies of empowerment over the years. There is a problem, however, in seeing where, how, and who delivers what. For many this is problematic and a reason as to why some have avoided academic circumstances for something more practical and hands on. Equally, if structured and delivered in correct flexible and alternative ways – such as learn through failure models – an idea like this could serve to empower rather than further alienate some people.


Freedom of teaching Albert Einstein


“We must let competing educators, public and private, innovate and explore to find the best ways to get our apprentices to the level of competency that the standard defines.” (Page 9)


This reiteration of freedom in teaching is of perenial importance. The micro-managing of how people deliver education has increased its strangle hold over the past decades along with an increase of social stratification through the imposition of formal qualifications which defines who can enter into professional workplaces. Our society is perfectly set up to create what we have today; thus without the freedom to innovate, experiment and adapt to the needs of the learning context – and the learner – we will only replicate and compound the existing situation.



“off-site learning can add real value, it gives the apprentice safeguarded time off the job to ensure they can do substantial training” (Page 10).

This highlights an important freedom for the apprentice/learner. If they do not have the flexibility to build their own learning encounters as they perceive them to be best constructed then the educational aspect can but be narrow less rich in its scope


“Though I believe strongly that we must unleash the curricula, I feel equally strongly in the need to invest in building the capacity of our training institutions. I believe that the Government should develop a simple and light touch way of approving the institutions, employers or people entitled to deliver apprenticeship training, and that these decisions should be driven by whether this organisation is delivering good quality training, relevant to the needs of employers in that sector. I also believe particularly strongly in our Further Education Colleges.” (Page 10)


Maid In London

The idea that there is a single route to learning and development is a misrecognition of education and learning. That Doug Richards expressed support for Further Education Colleges and forms of education other than those which dominate – i.e. particularly the universities. A shift in attitude of the UK culture in general is badly needed to accompany any investment in apprenticeships or further education institutions; not only this but a deep and pressing appreciation of the learning which happens outside of the formal context is needed.
On the continent trades set in the hospitality industry are regarded with greater esteem – to wait on tables well is a skilled art and science of organisation filled with complexities.


Someone who is a skilled waiter or maître d’hôtel is thought of well and can earn a significant income, also supplemented by expressions of thanks given by those recieving the hospitality. In the UK those in hospitality and trades more often than not do not receive the recognition they deserve for performing a vital and complex role in our culture.


All too often, the hospitality industry and the trades are demeaned and relegated to having less significant meaning – people in these roles can be derivatized into menial servants.  There is a danger that these hospitality skills are stripped of their humanity, and reduced to servants providing services; packs of labourers moved into and out of engagements by agencies run by administrators far from the site of where the trade takes place.  In this casual relegation of people who have learned their craft, considerable skill and expertise can be lost from benefiting everyone concerned.  Here is a great blog article illustrating some of the issues:


“I agree with the distribution of the cost being shared by all three parties to the system – as they are today. Employers pay apprentices wages and put in the effort to train them to become useful to the business. The apprentice accepts a lower wage during their apprenticeship. And Government pays for part of the apprentice’s training.


I think it is right the Government contributes to the cost of training and that it should continue to do so. However, I think that the purchasing power for training must lie firmly in the hands of employers. Employers are best placed to judge the quality and relevance of training and demand the highest possible standards from training organisations” (Page 11)


Apprenticeships and their development process should be thought of in terms of a social responsibility rather than a series of costs and profit opportunities. This recommendation recognises the shared nature of the social contract, responsibility, and benefits which are involved in the apprenticeship scheme.



“My proposals – the redefining of an apprenticeship, the role of the employer in setting the standard, the simplification of the system to one standard or qualification per occupation, the freeing up of the curricula and of teaching methods, the robust testing of the accomplishment, the funding of apprenticeship training and the generation of demand and supply – together form a whole vision of the future. One element makes sense only in light of the other elements – and each element will be deliverable only if the others are delivered as well. This is not a list of recommendations that can be taken in parts.” (Page 13)


This is highly relevant thinking for the age we live in where simplistic and reductive approaches seem to be applied to complex issues and problems; this is why I have chosen not to reduce down the size of the conversation on apprenticeships – we need to have access to the complex narratives and discussions to arrive at better understandings.  It is a travesty to try and fit a book into a sentence.


We can read much about this kind of point being made in the field of international development, where communities have identified that where a single need is addressed but not its partner needs, the success of project initiatives are short term at best and further compound problems at worst.  A particularly good book on this subject is ‘Inclusive Aid: Changing Power and Relationships in International Development’ editied by Leslie Groves and Rachel Hinton:


Apprenticeships should not be regarded as simple roles nor situated in simple contexts; and thus the rote administering of them should be avoided as well as cherry picking from sets of recommendations which are forwarded as interdependent.(Page 14).


“Throughout this Review, many experts have told me that what we need is for our apprenticeships to look more like some of our European neighbours’; that my task was to prescribe a solution which involved us trying to become Germany or Switzerland. Where they were right is that we have much to learn from these excellent systems; many of the core recommendations in this report owe much to their experiences.


We do have one most important lesson to learn though. Elsewhere, in Europe and beyond, apprenticeships are held in very high regard. This is a very different world from England where all the prestige is tied to a university education and all alternatives are considered second class. The future is not going to be forgiving of such prejudices and we should be very mindful of that as we consider this review.” (Page 15)



2015 Ofstead Report

January 2015 Ofsted Report Number 140132: Engaging small and medium enterprises in work experience and apprenticeships in London (

  • Providers routinely cite that the main barriers to engagement with SMEs in work experience and apprenticeships are employers’ time constraints and the lack of availability of staff to work with learners and apprentices. These barriers make it challenging for providers to find work experience places and apprenticeships.
  • Employers are not satisfied with learners’ employability skills and are critical of how prepared young people are before moving into work.
  • SMEs interviewed said that work experience was not always a real benefit to their business and created a lot of additional work. The 15 SMEs spoken to indicated that the large number of providers competing for work experience and apprenticeship places caused confusion. The SMEs foundit difficult to decide who to work with when different providers offered different options and services.
  • Six of the 15 SMEs said that being involved in work experience and apprenticeships was too bureaucratic. They were unaware that the government had reduced the bureaucracy for Disclosure and Barring Services checks, employers’ liability insurance and health and safety.
  • Three SMEs interviewed had used the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) website but reported that they found it complex and confusing. Three of the SMEs interviewed found the apprenticeship frameworks complex and said they did not always match the work role on offer. There was little awareness from the SMEs about the option to add additional units to an apprenticeship framework to meet the needs of micro businesses.
  • The SMEs interviewed had mixed experiences with providers, learners and apprentices. Nine SMEs had long-term relationships with their current provider and were very satisfied. However, others have had unsatisfactory experiences with providers, including poor communication, frequent changing of provider staff and being ‘sold’ a training package they felt they had to accept, even if it did not fully meet their needs.


Here we have highlighted a series of problems which Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs) face in engaging with provision of apprenticeships.  As organisations, they are not too big to fail having fewer resources to draw upon to devote to arduous, long and fatiguing processes which are stipulated as necessary for participation.  SMEs have higher costs due to lack of purchasing power, employment of greater numbers of staff and larger tax bills (as they cannot pay marauding lawyers to move their accounts offshore and avoid paying their dues, unlike for example Top Shop:  These positive qualities of the SME make for a more distributive economy often with greater quality and number of opportunities for people to take part in.


Fixing a Broken Training System: The case for an apprenticeship levy by Prof Alison Wolf



“During the 2015 election campaign, the main parties vied with each other to promise more and better apprenticeships. The Conservatives won, and so government policy now includes a pledge both to deliver ‘three million new apprenticeships’ over the next five years, and to ‘ensure they deliver the skills employers need’. Those two commitments are going to be very hard indeed to reconcile. Should apprenticeship be seen as important for successful job generation, productivity and wage growth?


Yes: it can and should be a major contributor. But are the funding and tools in place which can actually make it so? Definitively not. This paper explains why, and argues for a major funding reform: an apprenticeship fund, with its own trustees, supported by a small, hypothecated payroll tax. Without such a reform, and in today’s British labour market, the ‘three million’ pledge is far more likely to waste large sums of public money, and downgrade apprenticeship quality, than it is to provide the skills that a more productive economy requires.


  • A combination of central targets for apprenticeship ‘starts’ and the outcomes-based funding system, pursued by successive governments, has incentivised providers of training to engage in a ‘drive to the bottom’ where large numbers of short, low level and often low quality apprenticeships are favoured over more rigorous, longer, high quality apprenticeships.
  • There is not enough funding from government or businesses to deliver the high skill apprenticeships required to increase UK productivity and meet labour market demand. Employers have been slashing their own spending on and commitment to training at the same time as government budgets have been squeezed.
  • The current government’s pledge to create three million new apprenticeships in the next five years, while also ensuring they deliver the scientific and technical skills UK businesses need to increase productivity, is impossible to meet under the current. Under current funding arrangements, three million new apprenticeships would leave funding of only £2567 available per apprentice. Currently, only two apprenticeship frameworks, out of more than 200, receive government support below £3000, meaning it will be impossible to meet the three million target and improve the quality and labour market relevance of apprenticeships at the same time.
  • Turning apprenticeship back into an institution which reflects labour market needs, develops young people’s skills to a high level, and makes a genuine contribution to increasing productivity requires two major changes: a return to the employer-apprentice contract as central and defining; and, a much higher spend per apprentice than the current system provides.
  • A National Apprenticeship Fund, into which every employer would pay in via a small levy on payroll, would provide more money, allow spending decisions to be controlled by employers, and will ensure that all employers are directly involved with the apprenticeship system, even if they do not currently employ an apprentice.


Here I have simply shown some of the key recommendations of the report where a scrutiny of the pleges is weighed up in the light of funding.  Professor Virginia Eubanks describes ‘magical thinking’ in policy rhetoric in her book Digital Deadend, where huge statements are made without any consideration of the practical realities – such as those outlined in the many reports which I am reviewing.  If we add things up, the apprentice is already getting underpaid, and under consideration of the ambitious statements which are being launched on the public the proposed growth in numbers of ‘apprenticeships’ is “impossible”.


Chief Inspector of Ofsted Michael Wilshaw
Chief Inspector of Ofsted Michael Wilshaw

Same Thing Different Year ?

How well do apprenticeships meet the needs of young people, their employers and the economy? Are we seeing a pattern emerge over time ?  The Chief Inspector commissioned the ‘The Ofsted Apprenticeships: developing skills for future prosperity’ survey, which was published in October 2015, to look into the quality of apprenticeships under the current frameworks so that the findings can be used to inform the government reforms underway.


Page 4: “Since 2010, an increase in government funding has seen more than two million apprenticeships taken up. However, this surge in numbers has been mainly in sectors such as customer service, retail, administration and care. Unfortunately, these apprenticeships have not sufficiently matched the skills needed by our nation.


In recent years, inspectors have seen too much weak provision that undermines the value of apprenticeships, especially in the service sectors and for learners aged 25 and over. The findings reaffirm many of the concerns set out in the Chief Inspector’s Annual Report 2013/14 and make it clear that too many apprentices still do not receive sufficiently high-quality training.


Inspectors found that in a third of the 45 providers visited, apprenticeships did not provide sufficient, high-quality training that stretched the apprentices and improved their capabilities. Inspectors observed, for example, apprentices in the food production, retail and care sectors who were simply completing their apprenticeship by having existing low-level skills, such as making coffee, serving sandwiches or cleaning floors, accredited. Some learners on low-level, low-quality programmes were unaware that they were even on an apprenticeship. As suggested by some learners during the survey, a question needs to be asked: are these apprenticeships worthy of the name?


As well as stifling the career opportunities of these apprentices, this low-quality provision undermines the status of apprenticeships and devalues the brand. Employers and providers involved in poor quality, low-level apprenticeships are wasting public funds and abusing the trust placed in them by government and the apprentices.


Groundhog day
A groundhog seeing the reports coming in


Rather than provide a commentary, you can read some highlighted points from the Ofsted report below which reinforce many of the themes which have run throughout this review.  Of course, it is always better to read the original which you can download on the above link…


  • …High-quality apprenticeships were typically found by inspectors in industries that have a long-established reliance on employing apprentices to develop their future workforce. These include the motor vehicle, construction and engineering industries. Most of the apprentices in these sectors were aged 16 to 24…


  • …small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which comment about the burden and lack of support from weaker providers in arranging and administering training…
  • …There are still not enough apprenticeships providing the advanced and associated professional-level skills needed in the sectors with shortages. In addition, quality is likely to be further undermined if employers are allowed to underfund their contributions to apprenticeships, as some of those in this survey were doing….
  • …Secondary schools are still not doing enough to promote apprenticeships to young people…
  • …Inspectors also found that many schools did not do enough to develop pupils’ readiness for work by ensuring that they had the skills and attitudes that employers value….
  • …traineeships appeared to be having little success in fulfilling their primary role of being a stepping-stone to an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships generally were poorly promoted and too few young people in these providers progressed from level 2 apprenticeships, or other vocational training, to advanced apprenticeships. The number of disabled apprentices and those with special educational needs was particularly low, as is the case nationally….
  • …Schools and colleges should do more to promote apprenticeships to young people as a route into a well-paid career in a skilled occupation. Finally, schools and colleges must ensure that all young people develop the personal and social skills that are valued by employers…
  • …Employers did not make sufficient contributions to the costs of apprenticeships. Too few of the employers interviewed indicated that they paid the contribution expected from them for the costs of training apprentices. As a result, a large majority of apprenticeships for those aged 19 and over were underfunded, which contributed towards their lack of off-the-job training…
  • …Small- and medium-sized enterprises were not sufficiently involved in apprenticeships. New Trailblazer apprenticeships are dominated by large employers. Small companies are not involved enough in developing the new frameworks or in taking on apprentices. They told inspectors that they fear that a burden of bureaucracy, currently managed by the training provider, would fall on them and this deters them from taking on an apprentice….


Who Gets What Quality of Opportunity

The Sutton Trust published a report in October 2015 on ‘The potential of UK apprenticeships Improving social mobility through education’ authored by Dr. Philip Kirby (



“Research for this report has found that higher apprenticeships can lead to greater lifetime earnings than undergraduate degrees from some of the UK’s less selective universities. Degrees from Oxbridge and Russell Group universities (a self-selected association of 24 public research universities, with a shared reputation for academic prestige AKA ‘elite’) remain the surest way to earn higher wages, but there is evidence that the earning power of the best apprenticeships is increasing….


We need to increase the proportion of apprenticeships at levels 4 and 5 (higher) – the best apprenticeships – in addition to ensuring that level 3 (advanced), rather than level 2 (intermediate), is the minimum standard for most apprenticeships targeted at young people. If the Government’s promise of three million apprenticeships is to lead to a genuine skills revolution, progression to level 3 must be inbuilt within most level 2 apprenticeships.”


So here I interpret the message as a need for deeper teaching and ultimately situations which lead to deeper levels of understanding and skill.  It seems obvious that the message that the most money gets paid to those who can access the most elite universities.  So is this a case for redistributing some of the means of the Russell Group universities across a more diverse learning landscape such as apprenticeship provision ?  This question is specious if taken on its own, but worthy of being raised with others in the educational context…


The earning potential of an advanced apprenticeship at level 3 is slightly better than that of someone whose highest qualification is at A Level. Currently, the majority of apprenticeships are intermediate (level 2), many of which offer little value for the apprentice and only marginally better lifetime earnings than secondary school qualifications alone. Apprenticeships are disproportionately populated by those from less-advantaged backgrounds, so failure in their provision disproportionately affects this group.


Research by Oliver Wyman suggests that the most elite apprenticeships are disproportionately populated by those from wealthier backgrounds. They are also more likely to have been given specialist preparation by their school. There is a sharp gender divide in apprenticeships. For example, engineering apprenticeships remain male-dominated (96% are men); beauty therapy apprenticeships female-dominated (99% are women). It has recently been reported that, because of this imbalance, female apprentices earn over £1 less an hour than male.


Here we return to the question of who gets access to which opportunities. Hard conversation as it is, there must be some critical enquiry into the stratified nature of our society.  Widening Participation policies are failing even in Scotland ( where the rhetoric is that ‘education is free and accessible to all’.  Whilst policy seems to work harder in Scotland for social provision, there are vivid differences between what is said in policy and what happens in practice.  This obviously applies in apprenticeship terms according to the research done by Oliver Wyman.




“The government plans to provide 3 million more apprenticeships by 2020, but over the last two years, they have just created 30,000 at higher level. The government should follow Germany by setting a target to ensure that the majority of these new apprenticeships start at or develop to level 3 (advanced) at minimum, and last at least two years. Level 3 should become the norm for young people through automatic progression from level 2. Qualifications that only reach level 2 should not be regarded as apprenticeships unless the qualification will develop to level 3.


Government and the private sector should both contribute to this aim
The government should reform the vocational qualification system. The government needs to move faster in implementing the 2012 Richard Review of Apprenticeships and the 2013 Wolf Review of Vocational Qualifications to streamline the current qualifications system so that employers, parents, teachers and students understand better what’s on offer.”


It seems that various independent advisors to government over the last five years have managed to come up with similar findings on how apprenticeships and skills learning is being delivered in the UK.  It seems like there are many and catastrophic failures in the delivery of apprenticeship opportunities, and that a rethink is in order for the sake of the lives of many, many people.


DId I answer my question of “Are the majority of us having cheap unskilled labour for big firms re-packaged and sold back to us as skill providing foundations and futures to careers ?”; well, there is no single word answer, but if you made it to this part of the text, you may have ideas on that yourself.  Id love to hear your comments and critiques – what other information sources are out there ?  What I am more sure about is that the experts being brought in to consult on the issues do not seem to being paid attention to, neither do the people in the trades and crafts which make up our world.  This strikes me as deeply problematic.


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