Apprenticeships - Business, Innovation and Skills Committee Contents

2  Government policy


8.  This inquiry gave us many opportunities to discuss apprenticeships with employers, trainers, apprentices, students, academics, regulators and other stakeholders. We were consistently impressed by the passion and focus shown by all those involved. The up-skilling of the UK's workforce is essential not only to our global competitiveness, but also has direct implications for economic growth, employment, education and social mobility. Apprenticeships are, rightfully, high on the agenda of Parliament, media and public consciousness. Throughout these debates it must be remembered that skills are what matters; and finding the optimum way of delivering them is of the highest importance. As we were told by City and Guilds:

    The longer term needs of the economy and society and how this is best supported by a high quality vocational education and training offer must be paramount—rather than diverting resources to support short-term political objectives.[12]

9.  Throughout our inquiry we spoke to, and received evidence from, current and former apprentices. A group of former apprentices summarised, better than we could, the importance of getting apprenticeships right:

    We're all proud to be apprentices—many of us now even employ apprentices ourselves and we hope that one day they will too. Those young people swinging and missing with their chisels or cutting lopsided fringes today are the leading stonemasons and celebrity hairdressers of tomorrow.[13]

Recent figures on apprenticeships

10.  There are three levels of apprenticeship available:

    Intermediate Level Apprenticeships

    Apprentices work towards work-based learning qualifications such as a Level 2 Competence Qualification, Functional Skills and, in most cases, a relevant knowledge-based qualification.

    Advanced Level Apprenticeships

    Apprentices work towards work-based learning such as a Level 3 Competence Qualification, Functional Skills and, in most cases, a relevant knowledge-based qualification.

    Higher Apprenticeships

    Apprentices work towards work-based learning qualifications such as a Level 4 Competence Qualification, Functional Skills and, in some cases, a knowledge-based qualification such as a Foundation Degree. [14]

11.  The total number of apprenticeship starts in 2010-11 was 457,200 which represented a 63.5 per cent increase on the previous year. Table 1 shows that the majority of these starts were at the intermediate level, followed by advanced level. However, advanced level apprenticeships grew fastest of all levels between 2009-10 and 2010-11 (75.5 per cent increase).

Table 1: Apprenticeship starts by level (2010-11) [15]

Number of apprenticeship starts
Percentage increase


12.  Table 2 shows that the recent increase in apprenticeship starts was driven by those over the age of 25 with nearly three times the volume in 2010-11 than 2009-10. This compares to a 26.1 per cent increase for those aged 19-24 and 12.8 per cent for those aged under 19.

Table 2: Apprenticeship starts by age (2010-11) [16]

Number of apprenticeship starts
Percentage increase

Under 19
Over 25

13.  Success rates for apprenticeships are also increasing and the most recent statistics report an aggregate success rate of 76.4 per cent. Table 3 shows that the success rates for more advanced and higher level schemes are higher than that of the intermediate level.

Table 3: Apprenticeship success rates by level (2010-11) [17]

Success rate
Percentage point (pp) increase

1.9 pp
3.8 pp

14.  While recent developments appear encouraging, Statistics alone cannot provide a comprehensive measure of success, quality or value. Our recommendations are based on both quantitative and qualitative information.

The strategy

15.  Scrutinising the performance of the public bodies involved in apprenticeships against their objectives has been an important element of this inquiry. In its report, the NAO concluded that:

    The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has not provided sufficient clarity on what success will look like in the medium to longer term. With the Department for Education, the Department should better define its strategy for the Programme to monitor progress against the outcomes it intends to achieve.[19]

Green Lantern Training took a similar view. It argued that the lack of strategy prevented good scrutiny and that "you need to decide what the primary objective of the Apprenticeship is before you can judge whether it is of sufficient quality".[20] They expressed concern that "the Government has allowed the original concept to drift".[21] British Gas told us that a clear objective was important to prevent money being wasted. They said that the strategic objective should be related to the definition of an apprenticeship:

    Government has a role to play in setting certain key "baseline" objectives for Apprenticeships to prevent allocation of funding into schemes which are either too low level or designed to provide accreditation for existing skills.[22]

16.  The AELP, however, argued against limiting the scheme by prescribing a narrowing strategy:

    Arguing for a limited number, or indeed single, outcome would severely limit the successful role apprenticeships currently play in upskilling employees of all ages—an objective broadly recognised as critically important for the future wellbeing and prosperity of the country.[23]

17.  We received suggestions for the strategic objective of the apprenticeship scheme from industry, apprentices and academia. For example Mr Wilson, the Director and General Manager at Carillion Training Services, told us that the strategic purpose should be simple and focus on skills:

    Apprenticeships, to me, are about having the right skills in the right place at the right time, and if we do not get that right, we cannot grow as an economy and we do not have the right skills base to compete in international markets.[24]

Pearson International told us that the apprenticeship programme strategy should be driven by four objectives:

  • Support for learner progression;
  • Provision of broad educational training;
  • Encouraging social mobility; and
  • Meeting employer skills needs.[25]

    The Head of Skills and Economic Affairs at Microsoft UK told us that he felt the objective of the apprenticeship scheme should be genuine employment for apprentices:

      What we feel we really need are schemes where there are genuine employment prospects, because there is a problem with some of those schemes: I was meeting people at job fairs who were saying, "I have done an apprenticeship and I cannot get a job".[26]

    The Senior Policy Adviser at the Forum of Private Business, Alex Jackman, agreed and asserted that "it comes down to outcomes—people having jobs at the end of it".[27]

    18.  We also heard from current and former apprentices, who were clear about what they wanted to get out of the scheme. For example, one apprentice in Sheffield, Luke Shaw, told us that he chose to do an apprenticeship to improve his chances of getting a job:

      I got my places at university, but I realised then that I could have done my four years at university but still be back in the same position four years later without a job and no experience, so I decided I wanted to do an apprenticeship.[28]

    The Managing Editor of FE week, Nick Linford agreed. He told us that "apprenticeships are there to offer real work with training".[29] Professor Jill Brunt, however, offered a slightly different interpretation of what an appropriate strategy would be for the apprenticeship scheme. She told us that the infrastructure around apprenticeships must reflect the overall goal of quality learning:

      Too often we have led initiatives by creating new structures, rather than thinking about the outcomes we are trying to achieve. Ensuring high quality, fit for purpose apprenticeships is surely the goal; the infrastructure to support such a goal is therefore the most pertinent question.[30]

    19.  As it stands, the delivery objectives for the National Apprenticeship Service operate under five priorities. These were recently outlined in its Business Plan:

      1. Increasing the number of new employers employing apprentices.

      2. Increasing the number of young people starting an apprenticeship.

      3. High quality apprenticeships.

      4. More advanced and higher level apprentices.

      5. Broadening access to the apprenticeship programme.[31]

    20.  We asked the Chief Executive of NAS, David Way, what he considered to be the main successes of NAS. He told us that the greatest achievement was increasing the number of employers taking on apprentices:

      When the National Apprenticeship Service was created it had the specific task to support the then Government's ambitions to expand apprenticeships, which were then being taken over by the current Government.

      It was very clear that the blockages to the growth of apprenticeships were employer opportunities, so the biggest achievement we have been able to bring to apprenticeships has been to expand the number of work places now offering apprenticeships compared with a few years ago. [...] The growth in apprenticeships through having more employers is, I think, the greatest achievement over recent years, and I am pleased that the National Apprenticeship Service has played a part in leading that.[32]

    21.  We have heard from several witnesses that the current focus on numbers may have had a detrimental effect on the quality and other aspects of the apprenticeship scheme. Professor Alison Fuller and Professor Lorna Unwin told us that while the National Apprenticeship Service may well be justified in claiming success against their objectives, it had been given inappropriate objectives and definitions of success:

      On its own website, NAS states that its remit is "to support, fund and coordinate the delivery of apprenticeships in England". This signals a narrow focus on systems and numbers. We know from the recent statistics on 'starts' that the overall goal of increasing numbers regardless of age, level, sector or equity is being achieved. But this begs the question as to whether this is an adequate definition of success.[33]

    This sentiment was echoed by evidence from across the sector. For example the Greater Manchester Local Enterprise Partnership agreed that quality was at risk because of the current objectives:

      We echo concerns expressed by others that the rapid growth in apprenticeships has, in some cases, undermined quality and diluted the apprenticeship 'brand'.[34]

    The Federation of Master Builders also told us that it was concerned that quality was a relatively lower priority than the number of apprenticeship starts:

      Although the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) has administered a large increase in apprenticeship starts in 2010/11, it is concerning that this appears to have been at least partly as a result of prioritising volume over quality.[35]

    22.  Professor Ewart Keep of Cardiff University elaborated on the problem. He told us that the objectives of NAS were not aligned to the needs of employers and so quality was compromised as a result of the mismatch between employer demand and government wants:

      Essentially, government want levels of volume and quality to which too few employers are willing to sign up. [...] Caught between the rock of the targets and the hard place of the number and quality of apprenticeship places that employers and training providers are willing and able to provide, those responsible for managing the apprenticeship system often appear forced into making messy compromises about quality and cutting corners (for example on apprenticeship duration) in order to deliver the required volume and rate of expansion.[36]

    The Managing Editor of FE Week, Nick Linford, agreed that compromises had been made in the pursuit of numbers:

      When NAS saw a target of 50,000 to achieve, from what I understand, they were quite concerned, because it is difficult to create apprenticeship places if what you are trying to do is take on new employees, particularly in a market where the economy is struggling. They took some soft options; it was referred to earlier as low-hanging fruit.[37]

    23.  When we put this to NAS, the Chief Executive, David Way, told us that his priority for the future was to increase the quality of the scheme and frameworks, indicating a move away from pursuing the number of apprenticeship starts as a priority:

      While we are very pleased with the progress that has been made and can point to quite a long list of achievements over the last few years, there are some important issues still to address. Those change over time, but clearly quality is the most urgent and pressing issue with which we have been dealing in the last year. We have been getting to the bottom of quality issues and addressing them; we have made recommendations to Ministers, particularly about duration, which the Minister has announced, and we are now implementing those minimum durations, so quality and ensuring that everybody can have confidence in apprenticeships is the top priority for us at the moment.[38]

    24.  The NAO found the National Apprenticeship Service lacked clarity on measuring success in the medium to long run. We have considered the purpose and strategy of the apprenticeship programme as a whole and have received several suggestions about what the main principle behind the scheme should be. These ranged from 'genuine employment' to 'up-skilling the workforce'. Despite the Service's assurances that it would be focussing on quality in as a priority going forward, NAS has five priority areas for its delivery objectives in place, three of which are measured by the number of 'apprenticeship starts' for the year. This concerned us as we have heard that this focus on numbers has damaged quality in the past and is not aligned with the needs of employers.

    25.  The Committee welcomes the Government's commitment to raising skills in the workplace through the apprenticeship programme.

    26.  Our evidence suggests that the apprenticeship scheme continues to lack clarity and purpose in the longer term. Employers, apprentices and other stakeholders remain confused about the overarching objective of the scheme. We therefore recommend that the Government defines an overarching strategy and clear purpose for the apprenticeship programme. Only then can the public and Parliament effectively monitor progress against the outcomes the scheme is intended to achieve.

    27.  The National Apprenticeship Service has accepted that its priority in the past has been increasing the number of apprentices and the number of employers taking on apprentices. However, many of our witnesses have argued that the success of the apprenticeship scheme cannot and should not be measured by numbers alone. We are encouraged that NAS is now putting greater emphasis on quality, but are concerned that three of its five priorities for 2011-12 remain focussed on increasing the number of apprenticeship starts. We recommend an urgent review of the objectives and priorities of NAS with a view to justify a focus on achieving quality outcomes in both the objectives and culture of NAS. There must be appropriate measures of output for each objective. Therefore we further recommend that qualitative information (such as quality perception, apprentice satisfaction, public awareness and employer support) also be collected and published alongside more traditional statistics. We discuss and recommend further on this later in the report.

    Defining an apprenticeship

    28.  Given how much apprenticeships have evolved, especially over the past couple of decades, it is important to define precisely what we mean by the term 'apprenticeship' in order to scrutinise its effectiveness. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) highlighted the importance of having an agreed definition:

      For a serious debate on the issues it is essential that everyone involved is talking about the same thing. We believe that at present too often different people and groups mean different things when they refer to an Apprenticeship, and that it is vital first to agree a common definition of what an Apprenticeship actually is before tackling any of the other issues.[39]

    29.  Others agreed that it was important to have a definition but argued that it was for employers and employees to define the apprenticeship 'brand'. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills told us that:

      It is important that the rapid expansion of the Apprenticeship programme does not lead to the brand being defined by provider opportunity. It must be defined by employer demand and individual aspiration.[40]

    30.  The Chief Executive of the National Apprenticeship Service, David Way, appeared to agree that confusion remained about what an apprenticeship actually was. He told us that when investigating training providers he "found there were people who did not always understand what an apprenticeship was".[41] NAS described an apprenticeship as follows:

      As employees, apprentices earn a wage and work alongside experienced staff to gain job-specific skills. Off the job, usually on a day-release basis, apprentices receive training to work towards nationally recognised qualifications. Anyone living in England, over 16 years-old and not in full-time education can [be an apprentice].

      Apprenticeships can take between one and four years to complete depending on the level of Apprenticeship, the apprentices' ability and the industry sector. The minimum salary is £2.60 per hour (from 1st October 2012 will change to £2.65 per hour); however, many apprentices earn significantly more. [42]

    Throughout the course our inquiry we received different definitions from various stakeholders. The AELP proposed a slightly different definition as follows:

      An Apprenticeship is a competence based skill development programme, designed and endorsed by employers for their employees, which combines independently accredited work based learning, off the job training and relevant experience in the job.[43]

    31.  Pearson International argued that a quality apprenticeship had four key hallmarks:

    • A focus on the skills needs of the individual;
  • A minimum length of stay;
  • Broad educational content, not just job specific skills; and
  • A progression ladder.[44]

    When we asked the Managing Editor of FE Week, Nick Linford, what essential elements should be in any definition of an apprenticeship. He suggested three:

    • There must be functional skills or English and maths at Level 1 if you are doing a Level 2 apprenticeship, and at Level 2 if you are doing Level 3;
  • There must be a knowledge element; and
  • There must be a competency element through the qualification regime.[45]

    However, Mr Linford went on to warn against the over-prescription of such a definition:

      It is very easy to tick boxes to say, "All of the boxes have been ticked. I would like to claim the funding, and I would like to give the learner the certificate." My view is that for an apprenticeship, it should be more about the experience of having a real job.[46]

    32.  The Trades Union Congress (TUC) appeared to agree that genuine employment was a key element to the apprenticeship programme. Tom Wilson, Director of the TUC's Unionlearn, told us that "you work for an employer, not a group of employers or people getting together, and that that employer, when you have completed the apprenticeship ideally takes you on, and gives you a full-time job". He described this as "the fundamental idea of what an apprenticeship is all about".[47]

    33.  It is generally agreed that a single definition is needed to clarify the apprenticeship brand and enable effective regulation. For that reason, we recommend that the Department formulates a formal definition of an 'apprenticeship'. It is important that employers, apprentices, regulators and the Government have a common understanding of what is meant by an apprenticeship, and what is not. While we understand the need for flexibility (for example in the area of duration and past experience), an 'umbrella' definition should include the following elements:

    • Full-time employment;
    • Accreditation and a measure of educational gain;
    • Independently accredited work based learning;
    • Independently accredited off the job training;
    • Competence based skill development programme;
    • An employer led design;
    • Opportunities for progression; and
    • A minimum duration agreed by industry sectors.

    Furthermore, any definition should state clearly that apprenticeships are for developing skills not simply for the validation or consolidation of existing skills.

    12   Ev w79 Back

    13   Ev w67 Back

    14   National Apprenticeship Website, The Basics-Apprenticeships [accessed 29 June 2012] Back

    15   Data Service, Quarterly Statistical First Release, Post-16 Education and Skills: Learner Participation, Outcomes and Level of Highest Qualification Held, October 2012, table 8.1 Back

    16   Data Service, Quarterly Statistical First Release, Post-16 Education and Skills: Learner Participation, Outcomes and Level of Highest Qualification Held, October 2012, table 8.1 Back

    17   Data Service, Quarterly Statistical First Release, Post-16 Education and Skills: Learner Participation, Outcomes and Level of Highest Qualification Held, October 2012, table 7.3 Back

    18   2010-11 represents the first year these data are available Back

    19   National Audit Office, Adult Apprenticeships, 1 February 2012, para 18 Back

    20   Ev w148 Back

    21   Ev w148 Back

    22   Ev w46 Back

    23   Ev 159 Back

    24   Q 354 Back

    25   Ev w237-w238 Back

    26   Q 353 Back

    27   Q 74 Back

    28   Q 191 Back

    29   Q 510 Back

    30   Ev w49 Back

    31   National Apprenticeship Service, Business Plan 2012-13, April 2012 Back

    32   Q 539 Back

    33   Ev w133 Back

    34   Ev w145 Back

    35   Ev w123 Back

    36   Ev w173 Back

    37   Q 512 Back

    38   Q 540 Back

    39   Ev 156 Back

    40   Ev w288 Back

    41   Q 569 Back

    42   National Apprenticeship Website, The Basics-Apprenticeships [accessed 29 June 2012] Back

    43   Ev 156 Back

    44   Ev w238 Back

    45   Q 508 Back

    46   Q 508 Back

    47   Q 670 Back

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    © Parliamentary copyright 2012
    Prepared 6 November 2012