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How to lose an apprentice in 10 ways - Ian Pryce CBE

08 September 2022

The government wants to see much greater numbers of young people taking up an apprenticeship, but seems to then be doing all it can to scupper that objective.

1. Make them hard to pass

At the moment, about one in two apprentices fails. This compares to about one in ten failing an equivalent level full-time study programme at college. This is not surprising, given an apprentice has the additional obstacle of needing to, or wanting to, stay in employment for the duration of their course. Many apprenticeship sectors already have high staff turnover rates where it is common for staff to leave after a few years. A long apprenticeship therefore makes it quite likely an apprentice will leave before the programme ends, especially if they can earn more elsewhere. We’ve then compounded things by moving to tougher, harder-to-pass, standards from frameworks.

2. Make them reputationally risky

For most colleges, apprenticeships are a very small proportion of their activity. Most colleges will have more students studying particular subject areas than they do total apprentices. Yet this tiny fraction of activity generates an inspection grade as prominent as that for their core 16-18 activity. Worse, apprenticeship grades are often lower than a college overall grade. If judged inadequate, it will hit your reputation, and you will have to stop recruiting. Why would you bother restarting apprenticeships after that? We end up simply removing provision with an inevitable hit on overall numbers.

3. Make them financially risky

Apprenticeship provision is not lucrative, especially for colleges required to provide very expensive pension schemes. You get paid for what you deliver, so the risk is all on your shoulders. The complexity of the funding rules mean you could well find even the funding you get being clawed back. If your provision is judged poorly and you are forced to stop recruiting you get no help restructuring the staff who lose their work.

4. Make them administratively complicated

The levy in particular means extra reconciliation is required to ensure data held on our student number systems and systems that track the collection and use of levy payments, are exactly the same. This is made worse when an employer might administer one system and a college the other.

5. Keep changing the rules

The apprenticeship funding rules run to 140 pages. Animal Farm manages to satirise the entire Soviet history in fewer! Even the summary of changes for next year is 24 pages long.

6. Concentrate resources on adults not 16-18s

The average apprentice, in my experience, is now a thirtysomething business administrator, not many people’s idea of an apprentice. Allowing the definition of an apprentice to embrace people of all ages at all stages of their working life inevitably means young, new-to-work apprentices become viewed as less attractive and financially riskier than older, established employees, distorting resources and reducing opportunities.

7. Use a degrading term for the qualification

Muhammad Ali famously boasted “I am the greatest” before he actually achieved that level. In education we adopt the same approach. An A Level student doesn’t already have an A Level. You study for a “Masters” before you become a Master. In contrast, you don’t study an apprenticeship to become an apprentice! Surely we should rename them to reflect your status at the end of the qualification – advanced plumber, master technician?

8. Make the pay worse than a part-time job

Government ministers are famous for constantly asserting the benefit of an apprenticeship is “you earn while you learn”. This enables government to create artificially low minimum pay levels for apprentices, well below the normal national minimum wage.

The reality is very different. Almost all “full-time” students earn while they learn, doing part-time work, paid at or above national minimum wage. Why would a full-time student studying with friends while earning maybe £100 a week for 10-12 hours work, swap that for a riskier qualification paying much less with none of the social benefits afforded by a college community?

9. Set arbitrary achievement rate targets

At first sight an explicit target that at least two in three apprentices should achieve seems reasonable. In reality, that level of improvement is most easily achieved by ditching provision with low pass rates, so reducing numbers significantly, or by eliminating providers with low achievement with the same result.

10. Champion T Levels

T levels are high-quality new qualifications at an advanced level. They are attractive to those who are bright and want specific workplace experience, a sort of FE sandwich course. They offer a much better chance of success compared to an apprenticeship, without the risk of having to keep a job. You get long holidays where you can earn more flexibly. Colleges are usually based in locations that are more convenient than those of the average employer.

The more we stress the benefits of T levels, the more attractive they will seem compared to an apprenticeship. Given the novelty of T levels many students and parents will be concerned whether they will become as established as A levels (70 years old), applied generals (100 years old) and degrees (perhaps 600 years old). Scrapping BTECs, and promoting T levels, seems more likely to see a surge to the safety of A levels and a switch from apprenticeships to T levels.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.