Apprenticeships 20% off-job training requirement – cast in stone?

I speak to many employers during the course of my work with the National Apprenticeship Show. Whether they are apprenticeship levy payers or SME’s not paying the levy, there is one overriding issue that comes up as a real barrier to employing more apprentices – the fixed requirement for the apprentice to spend 20% of their time, throughout the course of the apprenticeship, on training that is ‘off the job’

To be fair to the government, this requirement has always been a feature of apprenticeships. It is just that in the past it has never been enforced. Now the Institute for Apprenticeships, and the part of government that funds apprenticeships, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) are rigorously insisting that it is a mandatory element of all apprenticeships – at whatever level and whatever duration the apprenticeship is.

We at the National Apprenticeship Show are very concerned that the government is taking such a rigid and inflexible approach, which is most certainly resulting in fewer apprentices being employed. So why is this?

The government argues that the 20% is necessary to ensure that all apprentices receive the equivalent of one day per week of actual off-job training, and thereby acquire new knowledge as part of their apprenticeship. They also argue that it helps to ensure that apprenticeships are likely to be of a higher quality than if the 20% were not a feature. This does make the rather huge assumption that the 20% element is relevant and that it is delivered to a high standard. As much of the 20% can be delivered through on-line methods, then no-one can really guarantee that the quality element is a feature.

Applying 20% of contracted hours to off-job training (if the training is delivered outside of normal working hours, then the apprentice must be given time of in lieu) throughout the duration of the apprenticeship, really is a very ineffective way of ensuring quality or new learning. It also takes no account of the practical difficulties that some apprentices experience in being away from the work environment. As well as the 20% being a questionable period of time, borne out of the old concept of ‘a day a week at college’ it’s inflexibility and cost are a real problem to employers.

The equivalent of one day a week, throughout a two-year apprenticeship for someone on £30k per year undertaking a level 3 apprenticeship, would cost in wage displacement £15k including on-costs. Many businesses have ‘done the maths’ and come to conclusion that apprenticeships at certain levels and for certain members of their staff are just too costly, and they would rather write-off some of their apprenticeship levy costs, rather than incur more cost in covering employees who are away from productive work.

So what is the answer? Flexibility! The government needs to look closely at the 20% and at the very least factor some flexibility into how it is implemented. For example, they could:

· reduce the 20% to 10% for the second half of an apprenticeship, given that an apprentice often needs to learn more at the beginning of their programme

· allow employers to include training and development activities that occur outside of contracted working hours. This would especially benefit those studying higher level apprenticeships

· allow levy paying employers the opportunity to cover some of the wage displacement costs from the apprenticeship levy

· given that employers determine the content of new apprenticeship standards, then as part of that process, allow them to determine to off-job training percentage for each new standard

There is no doubt that as employers begin to understand the true costs involved in running an apprenticeship programme, then some movement to make the 20% off-job training element more flexible would help both large and small business to properly embrace the spirit of apprenticeships.

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