Adult apprenticeships: quality or quantity?

Businessmen14 May 2012

By Alison Fuller and Lorna Unwin

For most people, an apprentice would be a teenage school leaver. Yet the latest official statistics show that in 2010/11 in England, 40 per cent of apprentices were 25 or over and 30 per cent over 45 years old. Nearly 4,000 were aged 60 or over. This would be very unusual in other European countries.

Our research shows that the reason for this unusual statistic lies in the practice of 'conversions', where existing employees in an organisation are 'converted' into apprentices. Both the previous and current governments have supported this practice because it helps them meet their numerical targets for apprenticeship. In 2008, it was publicly revealed for the first time that approximately 70 per cent of new apprenticeships were conversions.

The key problem with this type of apprenticeship is quality. Apprenticeships are associated with employees gaining new skills and qualifications, rather than accrediting their existing skills. Gaining recognition for your skills can be very motivating, but adults want qualifications to provide access to new learning - rather than simply recording what they already know.

So how has this model of conversion apprenticeship come to dominate the landscape? There are two interrelated reasons. First, government funding for apprenticeship is connected to the achievement of competence-based National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs), permitting individuals to gain credit for their existing skills through work-based assessment. Second, this has allowed successive governments to use NVQs to ratchet up the stocks of qualifications in the workforce.

Through our research at the ESRC-funded Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES) we are using our 'expansive-restrictive framework' (originally developed through ESRC-funded research) to analyse and set criteria for quality apprenticeships.

In an 'expansive' apprenticeship the apprentice is given the dual identity of worker and learner to enable them to refine practice and acquire wider knowledge. The model works when employers invest in apprenticeship as part of their business strategy to grow and sustain a highly skilled and adaptable workforce. However, adult employees who have been badged as apprentices are more likely to be experiencing a 'restrictive' apprenticeship, with little access to learning new skills and gaining knowledge, and ambivalent recognition and support as a learner.

Making the 'expansive' model work is challenging, particularly in some service sectors where, until recently, there was no tradition of apprenticeship. It is tough because it requires employers to plan for the medium to long-term. Given that apprenticeship for older workers is a relatively new phenomenon, little is known about their experiences and perceptions of the programme and its relevance to them. With the growing number of adult apprentices, more focus is needed on this issue.

Alison Fuller is Professor of Education and Work at the University of Southampton. Lorna Unwin is Professor of Vocational Education at the Institute of Education and Deputy Director of the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES)