Government apprenticeships

Apprenticeships have undergone significant changes in recent years, both in terms of what an employee can expect from an apprenticeship, and also in regards to the role and duties of the employer.

The government continues to produce legislation intended to increase the uptake of apprenticeships, while making it more attractive for employers to offer them. Thus it may be useful to know a little about the evolving nature and structure of apprenticeships and how the law has sought to facilitate these changes.

History of apprenticeships

Apprenticeships in England grew out of the medieval craft guilds of the Middle Ages and for centuries provided the most common means by which workers could learn a trade. The importance of apprenticeships as an avenue for vocational training grew during the 20th century, and continued after both World Wars. By the 1960s a third of school boys went on to become apprentices.

After peaking in the 1960s and 1970s, apprenticeships entered into a slow decline which lasted for a couple of decades. In 1995, there were half as many apprentices in employment in as there had been in 1979.

In an effort to reverse this trend, the UK government announced a new scheme in 1993 which ensured that all apprentices would count as employees and be paid a wage. Five years later, nearly a quarter of a million people in England and Wales had started an apprenticeship, with the most popular sectors being business, administration, engineering and retailing.

Continued growth of apprenticeships

In a bid to boost numbers further, the government spent £1bn in 2011 to create more than 450,000 apprenticeships in England, which represented a 63% increase from the previous year.

Subsequent legislation implemented an apprenticeship structure which in many ways resembled that of the mid 20th century. Some changes were introduced which improved the value of placements and the rights of apprentices. For instance, new minimum standards introduced in 2012 required that all apprenticeships must last at least a year and provide 30 hours’ employment a week.

In May 2017, a new apprenticeship levy was introduced to incentivise employers to consider hiring apprentices. Any company with an annual pay bill of £3m or more must pay the apprenticeship levy, some of which can be claimed back if it takes on apprentices.

The levy is part of the government’s aim to oversee a rapid expansion of apprenticeships, with a final target of 3 million new starts, over the next few years. To find out more see our Apprenticeship Levy page.

For more information on your rights as an apprentice and what you can expect from an apprenticeship, please see our interactive guide.