Apprentices at work [Credit BAE Systems].

Ch-changes: the all-new apprenticeships

The theme of 2016's National Apprenticeship Week is ‘an apprenticeship can take you anywhere, but with major changes afoot and new standards to get to grips with where will it take you exactly and how do you get there?


If it ain’t broke don’t mend it, right? Well, the times they are a-changing and if modern apprenticeships want to keep pace with the needs of a changing UK economy then adapt and assimilate they must.

The seeds of change were sown back in 2012 with the publication of the Richard Review of Apprenticeships which, in essence, deduced that apprenticeships should become more rigorous and more responsive to the needs of employers. The reforms we are now seeing are a culmination of work to meet the challenges and opportunities prompted by the Richard Review in making this vision a reality. As author of the Review, American entrepreneur Doug Richard said at the time: “This is not a critique of the successes and failures of the current system, nor an attempt to improve its efficacy; rather we are attempting to redefine the shape of the system itself, thus, this is a Strategy. It asks how an apprenticeship system must work in a future economy.”

The lack of school leavers and graduates with relevant skills is a familiar narrative and one that is no less pertinent to the engineering sector. Engineering and skilled engineers make a significant contribution to that economy, according to EngineeringUK’s 2016 report, contributing some £455bn to UK GDP, with a £1.21tn turnover, and employing 5.4 million people. However, a growing skills gap means we’re not producing the necessary capacity or the required rate of growth needed to meet the forecast demand for skilled engineers and technicians by 2022.

With the potential to generate an additional £27bn per year from 2022, if the UK is to benefit economically from this, then engineering will need to meet forecast demand for 257,000 new vacancies in engineering enterprises in the same timescale.

The importance of a redefined apprenticeship landscape will therefore play an important part in the coming years. As the EngineeringUK report maintains, through concerted and coordinated action, the engineering community and employers in particular can make a demonstrable difference by working with schools and colleges, inspiring future generations to pursue relevant qualifications and go on to careers in engineering. Placing control of apprenticeships more firmly in the hands of employers and ensuring that all apprenticeships are rigorous and responsive to employers’ needs is a good starting point.


The rationale for reform centres around three main areas: employer-driven to make apprenticeships more responsive to them and the future economy; simplifying apprenticeship standards so that they are shorter and more accessible; and improving quality and status.

So what are the changes on the ground? A significant reform is the move to short, concise standards, replacing the current, somewhat long and complex frameworks. These will also provide a clear and attractive ‘shop window’ for parents, the potential apprentices themselves together with businesses on what an apprentice should be able to do and know by the end of their apprenticeship. As Doug Richard said: “We must turn the system on its head and set a few clear standards: preferably one per occupation, which delineates at a high level that is meaningful to employers, what it means to be fully competent in that occupation, whilst unleashing our educators to reach that goal however they may.”

The standards are being developed by those who know best: employer-led groups, known as Trailblazers. As Skills Minister Nick Boles explains: “Giving leading firms from British Gas to video games manufacturer Ubisoft the power to design and deliver high-quality apprenticeships, means we can ensure more young people have the skills our economy vitally needs.”

Each apprenticeship standard has an assessment plan produced by the Trailblazers and, once approved by Government and funding is in place, will be ready for employers and training organisations to use.

English and maths are now a minimum requirement, with all apprenticeships lasting at least 12 months in a bid to drive up the quality of their content. In addition, all accomplishments will be robustly tested and validated, with an end-point, real-world assessment to ensure a fully competent sign-off. The result is a simplified, quality-driven learning and training experience.


The reform of apprenticeships is taking a major leap forward as frameworks start to be removed in the move towards employer-developed standards. With more than 1400 businesses in over 100 sectors involved, 199 standards published so far, 71 ‘ready to deliver’ and 154 in development, the roll-out of the new standards is gaining pace, with a substantial number of the new apprenticeships located in the engineering sector.

The academic year 2014-15 saw 400 starts across nine standards offered by 11 providers, with the number of starts on new standards set to increase going forward. The Government’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills envisages the migration from frameworks to standards to take place by 2017-18, with dual-running in the interim.

As the new standards unfold, retailer John Lewis has opened applications for its first round of degree apprenticeships, after working through employer-network organisation the Tech Partnership to develop the pioneering scheme. Its four-year degree apprenticeship, accredited through the Partnership’s Tech Industry Gold scheme, will offer places to eight post-A level students from September this year.

Through the scheme, students will have the chance to gain on-the-job training at John Lewis’s head office IT department, while studying for a degree in digital and technology solutions at Queen Mary University of London. Tech Partnership CEO Karen Price praised the retailer for its early recognition of degree apprenticeships’ potential, and for its valuable contribution in developing the rigorous academic and practical curriculum, saying: “The programme is an exceptional opportunity for talented candidates who want to build a successful and enjoyable career in technology.”

John Lewis joins nine other employers, including Capgemini and IBM, which have worked with the Tech Partnership to develop bespoke degree apprenticeship programmes for the businesses. In another first, these and other higher and degree apprenticeships will be working in partnership with UCAS in order to promote apprenticeship opportunities alongside the university application route – see


We know why and we know what form the changes will take. We have an idea of the timescales involved, but what about the structures behind the new systems and processes? How will the apprenticeships keep rolling, maintain the new standards and uphold accurate assessment?

Well, a number of new developments are emerging that will provide those all-important edifices of procedure, regulation and support. From October 2016, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills will start to roll out the Digital Apprenticeship Service, a new simple online portal. It will enable employers to select the most appropriate apprenticeships, choose a training provider and pay for that training and assessment. More importantly, it aims to get rid of unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape, getting back to Doug Richard’s ideal of simplification of the process. From April 2017, employers will be able to manage their apprenticeships themselves via the service.

An independent governance body for employers will come into being by April 2017. The Institute for Apprenticeships will regulate the quality of apprenticeships with the aim of reaching three million new starts by 2020. An independent chair will lead a small board of employers and business leaders to continue to drive up the quality of apprenticeships to the highest level, approving new standards as they are developed.

Funding freedom? The Government is introducing a levy on employers to fund apprenticeships from April 2017, at a rate of 0.5 per cent of an employer’s pay bill. A £15,000 allowance for employers will mean that the levy will only be paid on employers’ pay bills over £3 million, with less than two per cent of UK employers paying the levy.

To be collected through PAYE, employers who pay the levy will be able to get more out than they pay in through a top-up, choosing where to direct the funds in their digital account. The levy will place employers at the heart of paying for and choosing apprenticeship training, driving up quality and putting funding on a sustainable footing.

The all-important outcome

The new apprenticeship journey has a very definite destination: the all-important, defining outcome, delivering an individual who has reached the expected industry standard in their chosen occupation. The completed apprentice now has a recognised set of skills and capabilities, and can be expected to operate competently within a new work environment. The reforms aim to firmly place this achievement at the heart of every apprenticeship.

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