The good and the bad of the 20% off-the-job training rule

The breakneck pace of iterative changes in the apprenticeships system has left many – from levy-paying giants with big HR teams to the smallest of small business owners – confused about many aspects of the process.

Small businesses report getting caught up in an endless dystopian communications loop with the Apprenticeship Training Agencies, while even some big businesses slightly question whether the increased control they have over apprenticeships justifies the trade-off in the extra workload and bureaucracy.

But amid all the flux and certainty, there is a notable absolute. The rules around apprenticeships state categorically that a minimum 20% of an apprentice’s working hours must be allocated to ‘off-the-job training.’ To a layman, there seems nothing unusual or inappropriate in that decision.

Apprenticeships are, after all, about learning. Anyone who has ever waved wistfully goodbye to their personal development objectives year after year as they are swept away in the torrent of ‘business as usual’ can appreciate the wisdom in ringfencing some time to make that learning happen. And the concept of classroom time built into apprenticeships (perhaps through ‘day-release’) is not a new one. 

Yet there is a substantial amount of debate going on about this rule, with some businesses claiming they cannot afford to lose so many man hours and others simply questioning the need for it.  On a standard 35 hours a week contract, the ‘off-the-job’ portion of training equates to 300 hours a year. That’s a lot of lost productivity for businesses and an awful lot of learning about theory. ‘Aha!’ you say. ‘What if there’s a lot of theory to learn?’ And there you would really have hit the nub of the matter.

The ‘if’ is key. Some professions, some standards, will have a greater proportion of skills and theory that can and should be learned off the job than others. Critics of the 20% rule therefore argue not specifically against ‘off-the-job training’ per se, but rather that to insist that it make up 20% of an apprenticeship is arbitrary and neglects to take into account the vastly differing requirements of different standards.

The rule seems to run contrary to one of the over-riding principles of the new system – namely that employers are put in charge. If the new standards are about putting employers in the driving seat, then there is an argument for allowing them to determine how much off-the-job training is needed on a sector-by-sector and standard-by-standard basis. 

The DfE must also take care that the bureaucratic burden on training providers does not end up becoming a tit-for-tat replacement of the evidence-gathering requirements of the old system, identified in the Richards report as a kind of time-and-effort-sucking Dementor that detracted from the business of learning and development. Currently, the SFA expects a plan for off-the-job training as part of the Apprenticeship Commitment Statement, and to see evidence of its delivery in order for providers to draw down funding. (On a positive note, Ofsted has stated that they will not be ‘counting hours’ but will only dig deeper if they feel an apprentice is receiving a low-quality experience).

Questions are also being asked about the fairness of the 20% rule in terms of how it impacts on candidates. Since off-the-job training cannot include functional skills (English & Maths), it could prejudice employers against those candidates who would need additional ‘time off work’ for training to achieve these standards; thereby flying in the face of the government’s social mobility objectives for apprenticeships. Meanwhile, on a purely practical level, apprentices in rural areas may actually encounter difficulties in travelling to approved training centres.

If this seems unfairly stacked against the 20% rule, it does have its supporters. “Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands are often cited as the gold standards of apprenticeships. Although each system has unique elements, they share an unwavering commitment to extensive training both on and off the job – with the latter taking up around a quarter to a third of an apprentice’s working week.” says Tom Richmond, FE expert, writing in FEWeek on 17th July. So, in actual fact, the 20% requirement is lower than in some other countries and there is anecdotal evidence that off-the-job training contributes to quality apprenticeships.

Indeed, the principle that external off-the-job training contributes to the quality of the apprenticeships is an important one. Many of us will have experienced the situation where ‘nice to haves’ (like training) slip down the priority list versus revenue-generating activity. Making this mandatory and outsourcing it to an organisation specialised in the delivery of training ensures not only that it happens, but that it happens to a required and common standard.

There is a danger, if apprenticeships were handled purely internally, of them becoming black holes, impossible for guardians of quality to penetrate. (Note: while some larger organisations may take the decision to become employer-providers, setting up the training provision internally – these organisations will have the resources to ensure this is done to a high enough quality, and become subject to Ofsted inspection to ensure compliance). 

There’s a slim outside chance that the 20% rule might change in the future, should the lobbyists succeed in convincing new skills minister, Anne Milton. However, in the meantime, we like the advice from Sue Pitcock, CEO, Remit Training: “the main message is that off-the-job training in itself is not going to go away. Embrace it, have some fun and deliver some fantastic apprenticeships.”