There has been a lot of talk regarding the new strict rules that all Apprenticeships after April 2017 have to evidence 20% off the job training, with employers and providers flagging numerous concerns with the rule.

I welcome the focus on real learning and off the job training, the positive intention that apprentices are not forced to do all their training outside of paid hours and that funding is for developing substantive new skills. If we want Apprenticeships to be seen as equal and equivalent to GCSE’s, A levels & degrees this is exactly the type of rule that will gain that credibility.

Apprenticeships have always had a significant off the job training element, however in an attempt to drive quality the new funding rules set a clear 20% minimum for off the job training. This is a mistake which could have dire consequences. It is a blunt instrument that endangers some of the things we value most about Apprenticeships:

Why is this a problem?

If we want to have employers at the heart of the system developing standards and real ownership, then each standard should specify a guideline for approximate amounts of off the job training. After all these employers will be the ones that need to balance the short-term loss of productivity against the long-term benefits of training Apprentices. I worked with an employer a couple of weeks ago who has some apprentices doing a day a week at college and also some work in their own time, so they thought they were easily completing 20%. However, their college day release is for 5 hours each week, for 38 weeks of the year and work in the apprentices own time doesn’t count. Clearly this employer was committed to his Apprentices but the thought of needing significantly more time off the job than they were already doing made him really question the value of the programme. If employers find the time off the job too onerous they will vote with their feet and apprenticeship opportunities and numbers will decline.

Why is 20% the right figure? Where was the research that demonstrated this was the right amount of time? Can it really be that all Apprenticeships, at all levels, across all sectors need the same amount of off the job training? Why would an employee on a 30-hour contract and another on a 40 hour a week contract doing the same job need around 100 hours a year difference in learning? It just doesn’t make sense. If employers own the standards then they should agree the amount of off the job time required for each individual standard. That is employer ownership.

For so many talented Apprentices I meet, learning at all levels, they value being able to earn and learn whilst gaining skills & experience. Often Apprentices tell me they are achieving more than they ever hoped and realised they simply couldn’t get on in a classroom environment. The prospect of doing so again would have most likely stopped them applying for an apprenticeship. Of course, not all off the job training has to be in the classroom but the cost to the system of it all being 1-2-1 training would be exceptionally high and would it really be value for money?

A key concern for me and many others is the treatment of English and maths study being on top of the 20%. An obvious consequence of this rule is that learners that need English and maths will be denied opportunities for apprenticeships particularly with SME’s. We have seen this before when GCSE English and maths was made a requirement of the Early Years level 3 Apprenticeships, in many cases we saw learners without these qualifications being turned down for the Apprenticeship. Where an employer is faced with a choice of taking a learner who requires English and Maths study on top of the current 20% off the job (which still has to be completed in working time) against one that doesn’t, it is not hard to guess who will lose out. This will impact social mobility by closing opportunities for learners who don’t have English and Maths qualifications or who feel a classroom environment is not for them.

We risk creating a system where we spend too much time and resources tracking and evidencing off the job training rather than focusing on great learner experience and the training itself. I am seeing Colleges and providers adding significant costs to their delivery to audit and measure off the job training, surely there is a better way to spend the money which we all know is already insufficient especially for none levy paying employers.

So, what are the solutions?

The key is 20% is just to prescriptive and also makes little sense. There is no doubt that apprenticeships should have a significant off the job element, but this should vary by standard and be set by the employer groups. There should be freedom to complete some work outside of paid hours, after all what qualification in a traditional route wouldn’t have course work or home work to complete. Of course, we need to protect Apprentices from exploitation but if planned learning is agreed up front in the learning agreement by all parties there shouldn’t be a problem.

I would like to see a move to a recommended amount of guided learning hours required by standard rather that a blunt 20% of paid hours which will result in different Apprentices needing to complete different amounts of hours for the same qualification based on their contracted hours rather than their needs.

Progress reviews are a valuable part of the learning experience and also take place in working time. They most certainly should be part of the recorded off the job element, which currently they are not. Anyone thinking that the coaching, challenge and support provided in a progress review is not off the job training doesn’t to my mind understand what an apprenticeship experience is. It is also more time on top of the 20% off the job training away from productive working for employers

It is clear to me that by adding these flexibilities we will drive quality without disengaging employers and learners. We will also ensure there is less risk of learners without English and maths qualifications being denied Apprenticeship opportunities.

Finally, we need to have a transitional period whilst employer groups are able to review and agree what is the right amount of off the job training for currently approved and new standards. During this period, we should ensure there is evidence of off the job training but not try too hard to measure an exact percentage.

No employer I know do Apprenticeships for the sake of it. It is an investment of their time, their money in none levy contributions and paying an Apprentice whilst less productive at the start of their career. We shouldn’t be focusing the whole system to defend against the 1% of employers who might exploit an Apprentice and in doing so discourage all employers and learners. The system should be designed to ensure Apprenticeships are accessible to all.

We have an opportunity to make our Apprenticeship system world class. Off the job training has to be a part of that but tying ourselves in knots over a blunt 20% rule could have dire consequences, discourage employer involvement, disengage learners and damage social mobility.

Salisbury Consult was set up to support a range of Colleges, Independent Training Providers and Employers in major strategic planning & change programs. With a particular focus on skills and Apprenticeships. If you think I can help you please email me at