Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Seventh Report

5  The quality of apprenticeships

At the heart of the Government's policy is a substantial expansion in the number of apprentices in England, which we support. But, as the British Chambers of Commerce put it: "Simply to go for volume at the expense of quality will just consign this programme to the dustbin."[146] In its strategy for apprenticeships set out in World-class Apprenticeships, the Government showed that it was aware of the importance of quality and "listed a range of actions to improve further the quality of Apprenticeships so as to ensure that they are fit for the needs of the 21st century".[147] Stephen Marston from DIUS in his oral evidence made clear that the Government was seeking "a long-term stable framework for ensuring the growth and quality of the apprenticeships programme".[148]

We have focused on two aspects of quality: first, whether there is clear responsibility for monitoring and maintaining the quality of apprenticeships; and, second, how the draft Bill would promote and improve quality.

When we came to consider quality, however, we encountered problems.

a)  First, while the Secretaries of State in their foreword to the Bill refer to high quality training several times and quality is covered in World-class Apprenticeships,[149] neither the draft Bill nor the Explanatory Notes to the Bill make a reference to quality. Quality will, however, be significantly determined by the form and content of apprenticeship frameworks, the definition of which will be set by the specification of apprenticeship standards. The draft Bill makes provisions for both frameworks and the specification. While we examine both in this section, the effect on the quality of apprenticeships will not be clear until the specification has been published; it was not available when we carried out our scrutiny.

b)  Second, we detected a circularity in the Government's approach to quality which came back to numbers—in their foreword to World-class Apprenticeships the Secretaries of State in listing the range of actions to improve quality stated "including measuring what matters most: the number of people who start and complete their Apprenticeship".[150] While we accept that to complete an apprenticeship an apprentice will have to meet certain standards, the process for setting those standards needs to ensure that the quality of apprenticeships is maintained and improved.

Monitoring and maintaining the quality of apprenticeships

We received evidence that the Government may need to give further consideration to the question of safeguarding the quality of apprenticeships. First, greater numbers of young people with no experience of training will be encouraged to enter apprenticeships.[151] Similarly, sectors and employers that until now have offered few or no apprenticeships will be encouraged to take on apprentices.[152] In 2007 responsibility for inspection was transferred to Ofsted.[153] The Government explained that the

inspection visits will be carried out by Ofsted inspectors. Where Ofsted judges an independent provider as overall inadequate, the National Apprenticeship Service will normally continue to contract with that provider—presenting it with the opportunity to improve. However, the National Apprenticeship Service will reserve the right to cease funding that provider without offering further opportunity to improve where there are concerns that the provider does not have the capacity to improve and as such it is not the interest of learners, employers or the public purse to continue to fund that provider.[154]

Network Rail told us that the Learning and Skills Council and Ofsted were "increasingly bureaucratic and their auditing of our standards excessive"[155] and it pointed out that it was

an employer, not a training provider […] nonetheless, we face the same level of external inspection and assessment as a college or commercial training provider. For example, we are subject to a full Ofsted inspection which diverts a lot of time and energy which we should be concentrating on the delivery of our apprenticeship scheme."[156]

It favoured a system of "self-assurance and self-governance of our standards".[157]

Business saw the provisions in the draft Bill as introducing "a number of very welcome flexibilities in the way employers will be able to run their apprenticeship programmes."[158] Richard Wainer from the CBI did not consider that "flexibility and quality are mutually exclusive".[159] He explained that:

brands develop because people are confident they deliver quality and value for money. If a young person can see that an apprenticeship is preparing them well for a future career, is developing those wider employability skills, that is how the brands will develop. That is where young people and their parents will be confident that an apprenticeship is a good option for them.[160]

Not all employers shared this view. In its response to the Government's consultation on the draft Bill, one of the Sector Skills Councils, Construction Skills, expressed a fear that bespoke framework applications would become prolific and so lead to inconsistencies rather than uniformity at national level. They highlighted the potential difficulty in assessing frameworks where a conflict between business requirements and national consistency was evident.[161] In our view it is essential to maintain the quality of apprenticeships and for a single body to be responsible for safeguarding the "brand". The obvious home for this responsibility is the National Apprenticeship Service but we were concerned to be informed by Mr Marston that the Service "will not be inspecting or reviewing quality".[162] The draft Bill makes no reference to quality of apprenticeships. We conclude that the consequences of the substantial expansion of the numbers need to be carefully monitored, to ensure that the quality of apprenticeships as a brand is safeguarded. Ofsted is not suitable to carry out this role as its focus is not on apprenticeships and its approach has been characterised as bureaucratic and mechanistic. In our view the most suitable candidate for this essential job is the National Apprenticeship Service. We recommend that the finalised legislation must contain a provision requiring the National Apprenticeship Service to test and report on the quality of apprenticeships in England.

Specification of apprenticeship standards

As we have noted, a key provision driving the quality of apprenticeships in the draft Bill is the specification of apprenticeship standards.[163] The Bill provides for a statutory function to be placed on the Secretary of State to approve the core elements that are to apply to every apprenticeship framework, regardless of career or level: the specification of apprenticeship standards.[164] The specification could contain, for example, requirements as to competence and knowledge based elements, transferable skills, employment rights and responsibilities, clear progression routes and minimum off-station learning time.[165]

The specification is not a new arrangement. It will be based on the "blueprint" in the current arrangements, which was introduced in 2005, to provide updated guidance for Sector Skills Councils on how to define their Apprenticeship frameworks.[166] In its consideration of quality the Government said in World-class Apprenticeships that the "revised blueprint and accompanying agreements will provide more clarity over what is expected of all parties involved in the Apprenticeship."[167] No blueprint or specification of apprenticeship standards was provided with the documents accompanying the draft Bill, though Mr Marston pointed out that the Government had "put out in World-class Apprenticeships an outline of what that blueprint will cover".[168] When we asked Lord Young about the specification, he indicated that the Government was going to make it "much more rigorous."[169] He added that it would be ready for Second Reading.[170]

The absence of a detailed draft specification of apprenticeship standards hampered our ability to scrutinise the Government's proposals. This deficiency has, understandably, led those submitting evidence to project their views onto the specification.

a)  The British Chambers of Commerce took the view that the "broad outline for apprenticeship blueprints outlined in the draft Bill is the correct one, but should be as light-touch and bureaucracy free as possible otherwise business will not want to take on apprentices."[171]

b)  The Alliance of Sector Skills Councils said the specification had to be "robust, essentially having a national framework that all the apprenticeships adhere to so you have the common aspects of that on a national basis will ensure that there is an amount of portability. […] We have to […] make sure that those fit the framework and are national benchmarks".[172]

c)  While accepting that literacy, numeracy and ICT skills were important, the Federation of Small Businesses stated that it was "not the responsibility for an employer to take on an apprentice, to train in literacy, numeracy and ICT skills on the first day".[173] The CBI said that literacy and numeracy "should have been sorted out at school".[174]

d)  The TUC considered that "it was possible to have sector specific Level 3 core elements which were about communication skills, numeracy, literacy, team-working, motivational and organisational skills, all the things which many universities say now are what they are looking for from school or college entrants."[175]

e)  Edexcel highlighted two concerns. First, the specification and "the development of apprenticeship frameworks and standards needs to reflect more clearly the interests and contribution of micro, small and medium sized enterprises, in their own right. Many SMEs appear to believe that their concerns and priorities are not fully understood or communicated by Sector Skills Councils." Second, the arrangements "need to be sufficiently flexible to accommodate successful in-house training programmes of large employers whose structures may differ radically from the current Apprenticeship model. Public sector employers are particularly under-represented in providing placements, hence their concerns need to be researched, understood and addressed more effectively."[176]

On the evidence there appears to be tension between the expectations of respondents as well as some potential for disappointment when the specification is published. To take one example, World-class Apprenticeships indicates that the specification should contain a "reasonable absolute minimum for off-workstation learning time".[177] Perceptions of what would constitute reasonable absolute minimum could vary. It may be that the Government can square the circle but that will not be clear until a draft specification is produced. There may even be the possibility of conflict between, for example, a Sector Skills Council wishing to set national "benchmarks" and a large employer wanting to set its own apprenticeship framework with its own standards. We conclude that a draft specification of apprenticeship standards should have been supplied with the draft Bill. Its absence has impeded our scrutiny and prevented interested parties from examining the full impact of the likely use of the provisions in the draft Bill. We recommend that a detailed draft specification be produced and published as a matter of urgency and well before Second Reading of the Bill. In our view the specification of apprenticeship standards has to ensure that the quality of apprenticeships is maintained by ensuring, for example, a minimum period of good quality off-the-job training is specified in each apprenticeship framework. In addition, the Government needs to explain how conflicts—between Sector Skills Councils and employers or between the National Apprenticeship Service and Sector Skills Councils—will be resolved.


Whilst it welcomed the requirement in the draft Bill for the Learning and Skills Council/National Apprenticeship Service to consult during its preparation of a draft specification of the specification of apprenticeship standards,[178] the Association of Colleges suggested that the requirement to "consult such persons as appear to it appropriate" was "totally inadequate".[179] We agree and consider that the provision should explicitly list those with a key interest in the promotion and development of apprenticeships. We recommend that the provision in the draft Bill on consultation on the specification of apprenticeship standards should be amended to require employers and training providers to be consulted.


The British Chambers of Commerce told us that the "reason why large numbers of people have now gone off for an academic route with the huge expansion of higher education is because apprenticeships have not been seen as quality alternatives."[180] The Association of Colleges believed:

much clearer links and progression pathways need to be made between the different routes in the 14-19 Strategy, namely Apprenticeships, Diplomas and GCSE/A levels. […W]ork needs to be done to map each route respectively to ensure each meets the requirements of the other, to facilitate progression between them. We believe that the requirements of the draft new Blueprint are appropriate and have the potential to link well to the different learning routes within the new curriculum, including the Foundation learning Tier and to [higher education].[181]

The TUC pointed out that a large number of universities "already accredit prior experiential learning which will recognise all sorts of qualifications which may not be traditional academic ones and they are the kinds of universities which are currently actively now exploring how to recognise and award UCAS[182] points for Level 3 apprenticeships".[183] Lord Young said that the Government wished to encourage apprentices to progress into higher education[184] and Stephen Marston added that

to encourage that progression we are working with two of the current Sector Skills Councils, SEMTA and E-skills, on looking precisely at the UCAS tariff equivalent of what goes into their apprenticeships and then we can take that as model to show how you can build progression routes from apprenticeships into [higher education].[185]

We welcome the Government's exploration of the possibility of awarding UCAS points for advanced apprenticeships. Such a step would enhance the quality of apprenticeships and provide the possibility of progression for apprentices into higher education. The award of UCAS points for completion of advanced apprenticeships would enhance the quality of apprenticeships and make apprenticeships more attractive to those entering the job market or seeking to change career. We conclude that establishing that all advanced apprenticeships automatically attract UCAS points sufficient for entry into some higher education for some courses that are cognate to the apprenticeship would be a powerful demonstration of the quality, consistency and currency of the programme.

The Edge Foundation pointed out that some advanced apprenticeships did not prepare young people for degree courses and that, while they were an "excellent way of developing the skills and knowledge needed for work",[186] higher education called for additional skills such as essay writing and research. In Edge's view this presented a "real barrier" because admissions tutors were reluctant to offer places to apprentices as they considered that they would "struggle in their first year".[187] The solution Edge suggested was to offer access to higher education courses to any apprentice who wanted one and enshrine this entitlement in the legislation.[188]

In our view, however, the inclusion of an access course to higher education as a way of facilitating progression could send a confusing message about the standard of advanced apprenticeships to apprentices and employers. If all advanced apprenticeships automatically attracted a viable number of UCAS points i.e. that would be accepted as sufficient for entry to higher education institutions for courses related to the focus of the apprenticeship, it would be a powerful way of injecting quality, consistency and legitimacy into the programme. An access course would be superfluous and even risks undermining the value of advanced apprenticeships. We believe that it is essential that all advanced apprenticeships should carry sufficient UCAS points for entry to higher education and that this will provide the leverage necessary to facilitate and encourage progression to higher education.

146   Q 38 Back

147   World-class Apprenticeships, p 4, paras 3.77, 3.11 and Ch 4; see also Appendix 1, Error! Reference source not found.. Back

148   Q 124 [Mr Marston] Back

149   World-class Apprenticeships, pp 3-6, 8, paras 2.7, 2.18, 3.11, 3.16, 3.26, 4.8, and 5.13 Back

150   World-class Apprenticeships, p4 Back

151   World-class Apprenticeships, p 5 Back

152   World-class Apprenticeships, paras 5.4-5.5 Back

153   World-class Apprenticeships, para 2.12; see also Appendix 1, Error! Reference source not found.. Back

154   Appendix 1, Error! Reference source not found. Back

155   Ev 42, para 7 Back

156   As above Back

157   Ev 42, para 10 Back

158   Q 1 Back

159   Q 46 Back

160   As above Back

161   COI, "A report relating to responses to the public consultation on the Draft Apprenticeships Bill", 17 October 2008, p 6 Back

162   Q 193 [Mr Marston]; also see Appendix 1, Error! Reference source not found.. Back

163   Draft Apprenticeships Bill, clause s 11-15 Back

164   Draft Apprenticeships Bill, Explanatory Notes, para 4 Back

165   Draft Apprenticeships Bill, Explanatory Notes, para 20 Back

166   World-class Apprenticeships, para 2.12 Back

167   World-class Apprenticeships, para 3.11 Back

168   Q 169 [Mr Marston]; World-class Apprenticeships, para 3.7 proposed the following requirements in respect of the specification/blueprint:

A knowledge-based element

A competence-based element

Transferable or 'key skills' (literacy, numeracy and personal learning and thinking skills)

A module on employment rights and responsibilities

Key characteristics of an Apprentice

Minimum entry requirements

Apprenticeship Agreements (including a mentoring requirement)

Clear progression routes

A reasonable absolute minimum for off-workstation learning time. Back

169   Q 168 Back

170   Q 170 Back

171   Ev 44 Back

172   Q 8 Back

173   Q 16 Back

174   Q 48 Back

175   Q 68 Back

176   Ev 51, para 6.2 Back

177   World-class Apprenticeships, para 3.7; see also Appendix 1, Error! Reference source not found. and Error! Reference source not found.. Back

178   Draft Apprenticeships Bill, clause 11(2); see also Appendix 1, Error! Reference source not found. and Error! Reference source not found.. Back

179   Ev 37, para 2 Back

180   Q 38 Back

181   Ev 73, para 31 Back

182   Universities and Colleges Admissions Service  Back

183   Q 68 Back

184   Q 175 Back

185   Q 176 [Mr Marston]; see also Appendix 1, Error! Reference source not found. and Error! Reference source not found. Back

186   Ev 68 Back

187   As above Back

188   Ev 68 Back

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