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Apprenticeship in England: time to rescue the baby from the bathwater

July 2018

England’s new apprenticeship standards, alongside levy funding, have created new architecture for England’s apprenticeship system.

But, as argued in two new studies of apprenticeship in England, a report published by the Gatsby Foundation, and an OECD report, one piece of the jigsaw is conspicuously missing.

Most leading apprenticeship systems – for example Austria, Canada, Germany, Norway, Switzerland – allow for the possibility that some adults will already have all, or nearly all the knowledge and skills necessary to graduate as apprentices. So routes exist that allow experienced workers to obtain the qualification through an assessment without going through an apprenticeship. In Norway, for example, as many as one third of journeyman certificates were awarded on this basis in 2015/16.

This direct route is different from accelerated apprenticeship, which allows those with some of the relevant knowledge and skills to pursue a shortened apprenticeship.  This is allowed for in many apprenticeship systems, as well as in England.

England now needs to fill this gap. A necessary step will be to name the qualification to which an apprenticeship leads. It cannot include ‘apprenticeship’ in its title because it will be possible to obtain the qualification without an apprenticeship. In Switzerland an apprentice on graduation receives a ‘Federal VET Diploma’.   In England the qualification might be called, for example, an ‘occupational diploma’.

Prior to the Richard review, ‘apprenticeships’ sometimes took the form of just recognising prior learning.   The Richard review, rightly, argued that these are not apprenticeships. Subsequent reforms have, rightly, sought to ensure that apprenticeship programmes cannot simply involve the recognition of prior learning.  All that’s fine, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater! Recognition of prior learning is a hugely important tool in education and training systems. The historical problem was not in the recognition of prior learning, but in calling that recognition apprenticeship.

In fact, the new emphasis on rigorous end point assessments in apprenticeship makes a direct route to the occupational diploma much simpler. Most other countries require some evidence of relevant working experience for the direct route. In England those who can demonstrate a reasonable amount of working experience could be permitted to proceed directly to the end point assessments. Funding would be necessary for these assessments.

If Norway’s experience is anything to go by, this could increase the number of qualifications awarded through the system of apprenticeship standards by as much as 50%, at a modest cost.

And once we have occupational diplomas, that will allow us to think with greater clarity about how these qualifications are going to be articulated with the new T-levels, and how level 4 and 5 occupational diplomas can relate to other higher technical qualifications.

Those are challenges to come!

Simon Field