Basic skills: the missing ingredient in England’s apprenticeships

By Malgorzata Kuczera
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Apprenticeships can be of great value. They allow apprentices to develop a wide range of skills, they offer a fast track to employment and they can boost social mobility. But not all apprenticeships are created equal: some provide limited learning opportunities and don’t adequately prepare learners for skilled employment.

So what is the recipe for a good apprenticeship? It includes two essential ingredients: education and training, provided both on and off the job. As with any recipe, results depend on the quality of the ingredients and the way in which they are mixed together. And as any great chef will tell you, the recipe only improves with repetition and continuous refinement.

England is investing more in the development of its apprenticeship system than nearly any other country. Current reforms have created a new structure for apprenticeship programmes developed by employer groups and funded by a new levy on all large employers. Much has been achieved so far, as described in Apprenticeship in England, a new OECD study that compares England’s recent reforms with practices in other countries. Here, though, we’ll focus on a key ingredient in the English recipe that demands closer attention: basic skills.

English apprentices have distinctive characteristics. In some countries, like Switzerland, nearly all apprentices are teenagers. In Canada and other countries, nearly all apprentices are young adults, with an average age of around 30. In England, apprentices are a mixed group, with a fairly even split between learners above and below the age of 24.

Share of 25-year-olds and older among current apprentices (2012)

For young people, an apprenticeship can act as a launch pad into a successful working life, though that cannot be guaranteed. A 2016 OECD study of basic skills in England, Building Skills for All, showed that one-third of 16- to 19-year-olds in England have weak basic skills, compared with about 20% in Germany and 10% in the Netherlands. This means that a high proportion of young English men and women have real difficulties with literacy and numeracy – the foundations upon which continued learning is built. In working environments where tasks and even whole occupations are at risk of radical change, such foundational skills have become increasingly important.

Young English apprentices receive far less general education than apprentices in other countries. In England, general education (including maths and English) adds up to between about 50 and 100 hours over the duration of an apprenticeship; and it is only mandatory for those not meeting the requirements in English or maths. German and Swiss youth apprenticeships, by comparison, require around 400 hours of general education covering a range of subjects. Norwegian apprenticeships require nearly 600 hours of general education.

The remedy, as described in the OECD’s new report, is for England to include more general education in youth apprenticeships – though doing so is not exactly straightforward.  Increased general education will demand more time from apprentices, taking them away from the workplace. This is unlikely to be popular with employers. It may also require a differentiated approach to adult and youth apprentices who may be less in need of initial basic education. And of course, additional teaching will involve more human and financial resources.

These are major challenges, but if England wants to develop a world-class apprenticeship system, they need to be overcome.

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