At the FE Week Annual Apprenticeship Conference on March 21-23, the issue of the 20% off-the-job requirement was on everyone’s lips. Everybody from training providers to employers were discussing whether it presents a huge barrier to the delivery of the three million apprenticeships target set by the government.
Since then, the ESFA have issued a rule update and further guidance on the requirement. Instead of 20% off-the-job being calculated based on an apprentice’s “contracted working hours” it will be based on their “paid hours”. This means that both annual leave and public holidays are included in the calculation which effectively raises the requirement to being somewhere around 25% + of their working hours.
Interestingly, at the conference even RSM, who carry out audits of apprenticeship providers on behalf of the ESFA, were assuming that annual leave was excluded from the calculation.
With the sector clamouring for a review of this rule, it may be time to look at alternatives.
The 20% off-the-job training isn’t new, it has been a requirement for years. However, much like the employer contribution, it hasn’t been adhered to or enforced.
At the risk of voicing an unpopular opinion, I believe that if an apprentice is new to the employer organisation, is earning the national minimum apprenticeship wage and is on a level 2 or 3 apprenticeship, then the 20% off-the-job learning should absolutely be delivered within their contracted working hours. Otherwise it is not an apprenticeship – it could be looked at as illegally cheap labour.
"Instead of 20% off-the-job being calculated based on an apprentice’s “contracted working hours” it will be based on their “paid hours”. "
At the AAC Conference the facilitator, Newsnight’s Kirsty Warke, made much of the comments coming from the panel discussion on issues affecting the social care, childcare and education sector, asking whether it’s unreasonable to ask an apprentice who finishes work at 3.15pm to work an extra unpaid hour at the end of the day on their off-the-job learning.
It’s an interesting question, and I think that although it is not unreasonable, it is also not fair for this sector. An apprenticeship is a commitment by both employer and apprentice and if an employer can’t afford to pay the minimum apprenticeship wage for an employee who works 80% of their contracted hours, then it isn’t a sustainable job. With steep increases in demand not matched by the funding available, we shouldn’t be asking apprentices to subsidise an ailing care system – or any other sector.
When it comes to taking on a new apprentice on minimum wage, you know that you’ll get 80% of their contracted hours on-the-job, and you recruit on that basis.
On the other hand, when an existing employee starts an apprenticeship, any off-the-job training undertaken during contracted working hours can impact sharply on productivity. If the individual is taking a level 4 or higher apprenticeship and holds a management role, there is a likelihood that they work well above their contracted hours just to deliver on the demands of their job.
"With the sector clamouring for a review of this rule, it may be time to look at alternatives"
If the ESFA rigidly adhere to the 20% off-the-job rule, then existing employees at this level are very likely to do their learning within their contracted hours and then their “day job” outside of working hours.
So, asking the same question again, is it fair and is it reasonable to ask an existing employee doing a level 4+ apprenticeship to do some of the off-the-job learning outside of their working hours? Yes, I believe it is because they are being paid a proper salary, the employer is investing in them and the apprenticeship, once complete, is likely to make them more attractive in the job market.
My suggestion to the ESFA is a different approach to off-the-job training - to differentiate, for example, between an apprentice new to the business doing a level 2 and somebody who has been with the company for years and who might be doing a degree apprenticeship.
Then again, even that doesn’t deal with the main issue of asking an apprentice of any age or at any level to do off-the-job training outside of their contracted working hours. It disadvantages those apprentices who need to achieve their level 2 maths or English as well as their apprenticeship; have a second job to make ends meet or have caring responsibilities.
"With steep increases in demand not matched by the funding available, we shouldn’t be asking apprentices to subsidise an ailing care system – or any other sector."
The apprenticeship reforms have already come in for some criticism from people with concerns about how much they contribute to the social mobility agenda. Scrapping or changing the off-the-job rule will only increase those concerns.
It was interesting that at the AAC conference I heard two apprentices, as well as Emily Chapman, VP Further Education, National Union of Students state – eloquently and convincingly – that the 20% off the job rule should not be changed or scrapped. If the ESFA are genuinely listening to the apprentice voice, then there will be no change.
All-in-all, I am glad that I don’t work at the ESFA and have responsibility for off-the-job training, because the only certainty is that as an issue this isn’t going to go away.