Adult Apprenticeships

Written evidence from Alison Fuller and Lorna Unwin, University of Southampton

1. Introduction

1.1. We welcome the Public Accounts Committee’s decision to examine adult apprenticeships in

England following the recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO). In this submission, we wish to draw the Committee’s attention to the reasons why the majority of apprentices in England are now aged 19 or over when they start their apprenticeship and how this sheds light on longstanding concerns about quality. A key question we want to raise is: how much money is actually spent on training as opposed to accreditation and transaction costs? These issues are not discussed in the NAO’s report, but, we argue, they should be central to any examination of the effectiveness and value for money of adult apprenticeships.

2. Is apprenticeship suitable for adults?

2.1. We begin with this question because it isn’t raised in the NAO report. In other European

countries (and in the UK until very recently), apprenticeship has always been regarded as a

programme of skill formation for school leavers. It takes the form of a supported journey during

which an individual matures and becomes a recognised member of an occupational community.

This takes time to enable the individual to develop their expertise through vocational practice in the workplace and through acquiring wider knowledge about the concepts and theories related to their occupational field. In creating an apprenticeship vacancy, an employer sends a strong signal that they are investing in and are committed to the creation of a highly trained workforce, and that apprenticeship is seen an integral part of a whole workforce development strategy. As such,

apprenticeship is qualitatively different to providing standard on-the-job training.

2.2. In England, there are two categories of ‘adult apprentices’: 19-24 year olds; and 25+. Many

people will be surprised to learn that the majority of apprentices are now over the age of 19 when

they start their apprenticeship, and 40% are 25 or over. The 16-18 year old school leavers are in the minority. So, are all these adult apprentices engaged in the model of learning described in the paragraph above? To answer this question, we have to address the next issue.

3. Why are the majority of apprenticeships ‘conversions’?

3.1. In 2008, when we acted as special advisers to the then Innovation, Universities, Science and

Skills Select Committee, it was publicly revealed for the first time that approximately 70 per cent of apprentice starts (across all age groups) were conversions [1] . By 2007-08, there were just over

27,000 starts in the 25+ age group. The most recent full year figures (2010-11) show that the

number of 25+ starts had grown six-fold to 180,000. Currently, 54,000 (30%) of the 180,000 were over 45 years old and nearly 4,000 were aged 60 or above. Much of the recent increase can be explained by the rebranding of employees on Train to Gain as apprentices when the former scheme was withdrawn by the Coalition government. However, the practice of conversions has a longer history.

3.2. There are three interrelated reasons for the practice of ‘conversions’. The first lies in the largely unregulated nature of occupations in England (and the UK more broadly), but it is the other two reasons that are of particular relevance: a) the use of competence-based qualifications as the mandatory output from all government-funded training programmes since the1980s; and b) the obsession of successive government with increasing the stocks of qualifications in the workforce. Central to the competence-based approach is the separation of the process of training (and acquisition of vocational knowledge) from the assessment of competence. Advocates of this

approach argued that it would enable adult workers who had not had the opportunity to gain

qualifications to get recognition for their expertise.

3.3. There is some evidence, including from our own research on the automotive component

manufacturing sector, that the competence-based approach can be beneficial to organisations and

individuals (Unwin et al. 2008; see also Cox, 2007 on the health sector, and Fuller and Unwin,

2006) so long as NVQs provide access to new learning rather than simply accrediting existing skills and knowledge. Achieving a qualification can be very motivating, but not if it doesn’t build a platform for further progression.

3.4. The minimalist standards enshrined in the Specification of Apprenticeship Standards in

England (SASE) including a requirement for only 100 hours off-the-job training and the use of NVQs helps explain why two thirds of adult apprenticeships in England are at Level

2 and why so many adult apprenticeships can be classed as conversions. It also helps explain why service sector apprenticeships dominate the apprenticeship statistics. The top three ‘sector

frameworks’ for apprentice starts in 2010-11 accounted for about a third of all starts registered in

the 170 plus apprenticeship frameworks that are available.

Table One: 12 most populated apprenticeship sectors in England 2010/11

Source: Data Service

Sector Total Starts


Total Starts

Customer Service


Health and Social Care




Business Administration


Hospitality and Catering




Children’s Care, Learning and Development




Active Leisure and Learning






IT and Telecoms Professionals


Vehicle Maintenance and Repair


3.5. Currently, many apprenticeships at Level 2 are linked solely to the accreditation of the

competencies needed to perform workplace tasks in specific job roles, as well as narrowly defined functional skills. Such provision simply mirrors the limited learning requirements of low-level jobs, and leaves the government’s scheme open to the criticism that it is reproducing low-level skills as well as funding ‘deadweight’ provision.

3.6. In their report (page 13), the NAO state that all apprentices have to complete the following

framework components:

• a competency element, leading to a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) or similar qualification, which assesses how well the apprentice performs a particular occupation;

• a knowledge element, leading to a qualification such as a diploma, which covers the theoretical knowledge required by an individual in a particular sector; and

• training in ‘key’ or ‘functional skills’, leading to qualifications in maths and English.

This is misleading for two reasons. First, some apprentices (notably in sectors such as engineering) will attend college on day-release to study for a separate and substantial knowledge-based qualification (sometimes referred to as a Technical Certificate [2] ) as well as an NVQ. However, for most apprentices, the ‘knowledge element’ as stated above will not involve participation in a recognized off-the-job course. It will either be embedded in the NVQ or, if it is separate, will lead to an award with very limited recognition, currency and value. In the NVQ model, at Level 2 and 3, knowledge will be assessed as part of the observation of task performance by the assessor asking questions (e.g. why are you using boiling water in the preparation of vegetables) and through the inclusion of statements of evidence in the candidate’s portfolio. Normally, no written tests will be required. Second, the reference to ‘training in key or functional skills, leading to qualifications in maths and English’ suggests that an apprentice will be continuing to improve their literacy and numeracy. In most Level 2 apprenticeship frameworks, however, the apprentice is only required to achieve functional skills at Level 1 (well below the GCSE threshold of Grades A*-C for employability).

3.7 Funding for apprenticeship is diluted through multiple steps in the funding allocation chain – BIS→SFA→NAS→ Providers→Employers→Apprentices – along the way, other organisations

take a slice (e.g. Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network, Sector Skills Councils, UKCES, Awarding Bodies, Apprenticeship Training Agencies, Group Training Associations). The money pays for a range of administrative tasks, for the cost of qualifications, assessment and accreditation, inspection, and for wages. For example, Awarding Bodies benefit greatly from apprenticeship. In the past, they provided significant levels of curricula and pedagogical support to their ‘centres’ (e.g. FE colleges), but this has declined in recent years. The key question we wish to raise is: How much money is actually spent on training as opposed to these other costs?

3.9. The minimalist requirements outlined above amount to an impoverished concept of apprenticeship. We would argue that these, combined with complex and opaque funding

arrangements, do not produce value for money for the individual (whatever their age) or for society. Moreover, using apprenticeship as a vehicle for converting adults’ existing skills into

apprenticeship achievements does not align with the urgent need to create more and better jobs to

help the economy grow.

4. Towards Expansive Adult Apprenticeships

4.1. Maintaining apprenticeship programmes in today’s economic climate is tough because it

requires employers to plan for the medium to long-term. All countries, therefore, struggle and the

quality of apprenticeship will vary within and between sectors. Through research in a wide range of workplaces, we have developed the concept of the expansive – restrictive continuum (see Figure One below) as a tool for analysing why some apprenticeships offer so much more than others. The key characteristics include the extent to which apprentices are given access to (new) knowledge and skills and recognised vocational qualifications, to structured on and off-the -job training, include the opportunity to learn about the whole work process rather only discrete tasks, and provide a platform for higher learning and career progression (for more details see Fuller and Unwin 2011a; Fuller and Unwin 2011b).

Figure One: The Expansive–Restrictive Continuum



Apprenticeship is a vehicle for aligning

goals of individual development and

organisational capability

Apprenticeship is used to tailor individual

capability to immediate organisational need

Workplace, training provider and (where

present) trade union share postapprenticeship

vision: progression for career

Post-apprenticeship vision: static for job

Apprentice has dual status as learner and


Status as employee dominates: status as

learner restricted to minimum required to

meet statutory ‘apprenticeship framework’

Apprentice makes gradual transition to

productive worker, gaining expertise in

occupational field

Fast transition to productive worker with

limited knowledge of occupational field;

existing productive workers given minimal


Apprentice treated as member of

occupational and workplace community

with access to community’s rules, history,

knowledge and expertise

Apprentice treated as extra pair of hands who

only needs access to limited knowledge and

skills to perform job

Apprentice participates in different

communities of practice inside and outside

the workplace

Participation restricted to narrowly defined

job role and work station

Workplace maps everyday work tasks

against qualification requirements – qualification valued as extending beyond immediate job requirements

Weak relationship between workplace tasks and qualifications – no recognition for skills and knowledge acquired beyond immediate work tasks

Qualifications develop knowledge for progression to next level and platform for further education

Qualifications accredit limited range of onthe-

job competence

Apprentice has time off-the-job for study

and to gain wider perspective

Off-the-job simply a minor extension of onthe-


Apprentice’s existing skills and knowledge

recognised, valued and used as platform

for new learning

Apprentices regarded as ‘blank sheets’ or

‘empty vessels’

Apprentice’s progress closely monitored –

regular constructive feedback from range

of employer and provider personnel who

take a holistic approach

Apprentice’s progress monitored for job

performance with limited feedback –

provider involvement restricted to formal

assessments for qualifications

4.2. We have examples of world-class expansive apprenticeship provision in England, particularly in engineering, but also in other sectors. The problem is we have too much at the restrictive end of the continuum and that is where many of the adult apprenticeships, particularly at Level 2, are located.

5. Conclusion

5.1. Little is known about the experiences of adult apprentices and there has been a surprising lack of debate about what adult apprenticeships are for, particularly for adults aged 24 and over. [3] There is nothing to suggest that, given opportunities to engage in meaningful new learning and

knowledge-based qualifications that can provide a platform for career progression or a change of

occupation, adults would not be able to benefit from apprenticeship. We would argue, however, that the core principles of the expansive – restrictive continuum are important in all apprenticeships . In our view adult training that does not meet this benchmark should not be called an apprenticeship.

5.2. We would urge the Public Accounts Committee to go beyond the NAO report to ask whether the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, the Skills Funding Agency and the National Apprenticeship can provide evidence to show that public money is being spent on quality

apprenticeship programmes providing adults with substantial new training or re-training for skilled employment as opposed to some basic on-the-job training and the accreditation of existing skills.

6. References

Cox, A. (2007) Re-visiting the NVQ Debate: ‘Bad’ Qualifications, Expansive Learning

Environments and Prospects for Upskilling Workers, SKOPE Research Paper No 71 . Available at:

Felstead, A., Green, F. and Jewson, N. (2011) The Impact of the 2008-09 Recession on the Extent,

Form and Patterns of Training at Work, LLAKES Research Paper 22, London: Institute of

Education. Available at:


Fuller, A. and Unwin, L. (2006), Older Workers’ Learning in Changing Workplace Contexts:

Perceptions of Barriers and Opportunities, in T. Tikkannen and B. Nyhan, (eds) Promoting Lifelong

Learning for older workers: An international review , Thessaloniki, Greece: CEDEFOP.

Fuller, A. and Unwin, L. (2011a) The Content of Apprenticeships, in Dolphin, T. and Lanning, T.

(eds) Rethinking Apprenticeship , London: IPPR.

Fuller, A. and Unwin, L. (2011b) Creating and Supporting Expansive Apprenticeships, A Guide for

Employers, Colleges of Further Education and Training Providers, published by the National

Apprenticeship Service. The guide is available at:

Mason, G. and Bishop, K. (2010) Adult Training, Skills Updating and Recession in the UK: The

Implications for Competitiveness and Social Inclusion , published by the Centre for Learning and

Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies at: .

Unwin, L., Fuller, A., Bishop, D., Felstead, A., Jewson, N., Kakavelakis, K. (2008) 'Exploring the

dangers and benefits of the UK's competence-based approach: the use of vocational qualifications

as learning artefacts and tools for measurement in the automotive sector' , Learning as Work

Research Paper No 15, Cardiff: Cardiff School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University.

[1] Select Committee Inquiry scrutiny of the Apprenticeship Bill, the report is available to download at:


[2] In response to concerns about that apprentices in some sectors were not acquiring new knowledge above and beyond that required for everyday work tasks, the government implemented the recommendation of the Cassels report of 2001 that every apprenticeship should include a knowledge-based Technical Certificate as well as an NVQ. In 2007, the government dropped this requirement and simply required apprenticeship frameworks to show how the knowledge-based element formed part of the mandatory NVQ.

[3] Research does show that opportunities for adult employees to access off-the-job taining in England plateaued in the mid- 1990s – see Mason and Bishop, 2010 and Felstead et al, 2011

Prepared 22nd March 2012