From education to employment

Government figures show that almost half of all apprentices are now dropping out of their course

Eleanor Regan

Ten years on from a major government review into the quality of apprenticeships (‘the Richard Review’), there are worrying signs that too many apprentices are still getting a poor experience.

Government figures show that almost half of all apprentices (47 per cent) are now dropping out of their course, and 70 per cent of those report problems with the quality of their training – equivalent to 115,000 apprentices every year. So what exactly is going wrong?

The new EDSK report

Our new EDSK report found a number of concerns with the apprenticeship system. One is that apprentices often must navigate the system with limited information. They are not given any curriculum or syllabus that sets out what they will learn before starting their programme. As a result, apprentices are left to make decisions about their future with barely any knowledge about what they are signing up to – something that would never be tolerated for A-level or university applicants. This also leaves apprentices at risk of a poor-quality experience as they may have no point of reference for what training they should be receiving or what topics their apprenticeship should cover.

Apprentices not getting the required training

Another concern is the number of apprentices not getting the required training from their training provider. Every apprentice is entitled to at least one-day-a-week of ‘off the job’ training, yet more than half say they get less than this, and 30 per cent say they get no training from their provider throughout the entire working week. As many as one in five apprentices are not told by their employer or training provider that this minimum entitlement exists. By failing to provide this essential training for learners, it appears that some providers are either unable or unwilling to deliver a good experience for their apprentices.

Even when training is being delivered by external providers, it is not always as valuable as it could be. The government allows providers to use unlimited quantities of online training , as well as counting the time apprentices spend doing homework and written assignments as ‘training’. This means apprentices can go weeks, sometimes months, without any face-to-face training from a mentor or industry expert. This is particularly alarming as some apprentices who drop out cite a lack of support from their training provider as a crucial factor in their decision to quit. Regrettably, the lack of genuine training has become so common that one in ten apprentices are not aware they are on an apprenticeship.

Employers treating apprentices as workers rather than learners

Yet another concern is that some employers treat apprentices as workers rather than learners. Too often training is seen as a burden, with one in five apprentices getting no ‘on the job’ training from their employer. The government has also allowed employers to rebadge low-skill roles as ‘apprenticeships’. As a result, some ‘apprentices’ are doing basic tasks such as heating precooked meals and greeting customers while being paid as little as £4.81 an hour. With little training or development, apprentices on these poor quality ‘apprenticeships’ are at risk of accepting a lower wage without any longer-term benefits – in fact, their future career opportunities and wage prospects could actually be harmed.

What has allowed these issues to rise?

But what has allowed these issues to arise? Quality assurance within the apprenticeship system is unnecessarily fragmented. The Education and Skills Funding Agency determines which new training providers can deliver apprenticeships, but they are a funding body with no expertise in training provision or on-site inspections. Ofsted is responsible for inspecting the delivery of training by providers but limited funding from government means there are often significant delays in inspecting new and existing providers. There is also no mechanism for checking that employers are able to provide a high-quality experience before recruiting an apprentice, making England an international outlier and leaving apprentices at risk of being exploited.

Clearly there are significant problems in the system that need to be addressed. Our latest report at EDSK concludes that the government must set a higher bar for ‘quality’ to protect apprentices from being stuck on a substandard training course.

Our research recommends introducing a detailed ‘training curriculum’ for each apprenticeship. By getting employers to write a curriculum for each apprenticeship, every apprentice would know exactly what they will learn and what to expect during their training. Having a curriculum would also guarantee that different employers and training providers deliver apprenticeships in the same way across the country, making it easier for apprentices to keep track of whether they are being taught the right skills and knowledge. Other countries such as Germany have successfully created training curricula for their apprenticeships so there is no reason why England should not be able to replicate this.

Off the job training

Each training curriculum should also specify the hours of ‘off the job’ training that providers must deliver. Our report argues that an apprenticeship for a highly skilled job should consist of at least 300 hours of ‘off the job’ training in each year of the course. Because apprentices being left alone to teach themselves does not represent high-quality training, at least 200 hours of this curriculum should be delivered face-to-face, and activities such as homework and writing assignments should no longer count.

Creating these curricula would also help to remove any apprenticeship that does not offer a genuine training programme for a skilled job. With the training curriculum setting out the required training in detail, it would be easier to scrap apprenticeships for roles that do not need extensive training.  This would stop employers from using apprenticeships to fill low skill roles and, in some cases, paying these ‘apprentices’ a lower wage than other employees performing the same duties.  

Alongside these changes, a new ‘National Apprenticeship Inspectorate’ responsible for monitoring the quality of apprenticeship delivery should be introduced. The inspectorate should take over responsibility for approving new training providers and carry out on-site visits to all prospective providers, which does not currently happen. As well as conducting regular inspections of providers once they are approved, the inspectorate should also support providers and employers to deliver better quality apprenticeships by publishing best practice documents containing advice and support.

We know that many apprentices are already getting a high-quality experience. However, not enough progress has been made over the last decade to ensure that this is the case for all learners. Our report sets out the next steps towards achieving the long-standing ambition of building a world class apprenticeship system that consistently delivers high-quality training – as envisaged by the Richard Review ten years ago.

By Eleanor Regan, researcher at the EDSK think tank.

Eleanor Regan is a researcher at the EDSK think tank. She has co-authored several reports at EDSK, including major projects on topics such as the future of assessment in primary and secondary schools, preventing young people from becoming unemployed and the debate over ‘low value’ Higher Education.

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