Pre-COVID-19 Apprenticeships

The new apprenticeship regulations (ESFA, 2019a) and, in particular, the stipulation that all funded training must be off-the-job, was designed to address past abuses of the system, whereby on-the-job training amounted to no more than assessment of (existing) skills without necessarily constituting any learning or training. Instead, these regulations focus on off-the-job training as the only fundable (and thus regulated) element, whilst on-the-job training is defined as ‘practising’ in the work environment the knowledge and skills acquired through the off-thejob element. There is no requirement on employers to provide on-the-job training.

All employers provided (and focused first and foremost) on their own in-house training programmes, which was the training designed to prepare staff for certain job roles, regardless of any apprenticeship training. This included off-the-job training for all staff, through both, initial induction and staff development, in the form of in-house training events and/or access to external provision. As a result, there was little difference in the training provided for apprenticed and non-apprenticed new recruits. Indeed, the main difference was the underpinning knowledge gained through the off-the-job element of apprenticeship.

Drawing on Fuller and Unwin’s (2003) Expansive-Restrictive Framework, the ten employers in our sample fell into two groups: those adopting an expansive approach to apprenticeship and on-the-job training (Engineering, Construction and IT); and those whose approach was more restrictive (Retail and Social Care). Employers utilising an expansive approach provided their own comprehensive training programmes. Whilst these included off-the-job provision (both internal, and access to external training) the focus was on extensive on-the-job training. This was carefully planned and part of a strategy of workforce development. It was designed to develop occupational competence of iv rounded employees, who had an understanding of the organisations as a whole and their positions within them. Many employers had developed their own in-house training plans against which they monitored the apprentices’ progress in a range of skill areas. Whilst the apprenticeship criteria were covered by the companies’ on-the-job training, the latter was commonly far broader and in-depth than what was required by the frameworks or standards.

Nevertheless, these employers valued apprenticeship as a model of learning. The off-the-job element provided vital theoretical knowledge and understanding to underpin occupational practice. The frameworks or standards also constituted a useful structure, and employers sought to organise the apprentices’ on-the-job training in line with the off-the-job element of the apprenticeship (delivered in day-release classroom education) so as to facilitate the integration of theory and practice. In these organisations, mentoring and shadowing were crucial elements of on-the-job training, the aim of which was to develop apprentices’ expertise and to gradually initiate them into a community of practice. Apprentices would be working alongside a senior worker or trainer for much of the entire duration of the apprenticeship, whilst gradually taking on more responsibility. They therefore held the dual status of learner and employee throughout the apprenticeship. 8. In the case of the employers under the restrictive approach (Retail and Social Care), the main focus was also on the in-house training for specific job roles.

However, these were relatively narrow when compared with the occupational roles in the companies adopting an expansive approach. The training was delivered predominantly off-the-job and, whilst staff development programmes were in place, much training was front-loaded (delivered through an induction).

This was particularly critical in social care, where all staff attended training based on the Care Certificate before they started working with vulnerable adults. The apprenticeship closely matched this training. 9. In sharp contrast to employers in the expansive approach, apprentices in the retail and social care organisations of our sample were first and foremost productive workers (rather than learners), who completed an apprenticeship within the designated 20% of their working time. What is more, this time allocation was not always protected. Indeed, all four employers indicated that they perceived the 20% off-the-job rule as the greatest challenge they were facing, arguing they could scarcely afford ‘losing’ a member of staff from the production process.

The apprenticeship was therefore quite separate from, rather than an integral part of, the apprentices’ workplace practice (i.e. the job roles they carried out). In these organisations, responsibility for the apprenticeship was firmly with the training provider, while employers were generally passive. The employer role was primarily to ‘line-manage’ apprentices, for example, by ensuring apprentices were given time to complete the off-the-job element, and to provide a point of contact for general support and feedback. During the apprentices’ time on the shop floor (80% of their working time), there was little or no on-the-job training provided by the employer (beyond the initial training for all staff, which in any case was limited). Indeed, when asked about on-the-job training, managers and trainers of all four organisations highlighted the importance of workplace learning as occurring naturally as a result of day-to-day practice. Apprentices were encouraged to apply the knowledge and skills they had gained through the off-the-job element, but they did not receive any structured support.


‘’apprentices would definitely learn more. For example, legal and governance – with somebody that we’d just recruit into the business… we wouldn’t necessarily educate them on the ins and outs of [for example] trading standards. Because that’s just not necessarily in their role…. Whereas, somebody that we’re investing in, that we want to be a future store manager, we would want to expose them to as much of that that is relevant and at some point in their life they might need that information’’

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