Short History of Apprenticeships

Definition of an apprenticeship:
One bound by legal agreement to work for another for a specific amount of time in return for instruction in a trade, art or business.
Apprenticeships in Britain started back in the Middle Ages and were closely related to the mediaeval craft guilds. In 1563 the Statute of Artificers created a more regulated and prescribed system by setting out more precise conditions and terms. These included the duration of the apprenticeship and very importantly the relationship between the master and apprentice. Also it limited the master to a maximum of three apprentices. Surprisingly apprenticeships were not necessarily voluntary and in some cases there were instances of compulsion. Basically apprenticeships evolved by way of a contractual agreement between the master and apprentice initially in a few trades. The regulation was through indentures that were legally binding documents. Indentures were written and agreed, binding the servant and master and in which the master took responsibility for the apprentice’s training and welfare and provided him with accommodation. Also there were conditions about how the apprentice should behave outside his workplace and these conditions were stated explicitly in the indenture.  Note at this time all apprentices were male.
Apprenticeships lasted for 2 to 7 years’ depending on the particular trade after which the apprentice became a journey man. The term derived from the French word for day i.e. ‘journee’ and basically meant that the journeyman would be paid by the day for his work. After a period of extensive experience the journeyman could submit a piece of his best work to the appropriate guild for assessment and approval. If this ‘master piece’ was accepted he could become a master craftsman and set up his own workshop and train apprentices.
The following two centuries witnessed a significant expansion in apprenticeships accompanied by gradually improved legislation on working conditions including those in the workplace environment. However eventually the general popularity of apprenticeships declined owing to the exploitation of young apprentices and the awful conditions in many factories. In 1802 the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act laid down additional conditions including a 12- hour working day and a requirement that a factory apprentice should be taught arithmetic, reading and writing. In 1814 following the 1802 Act the 1563 Statute was dissolved, the new regulations weakened the statutory controls e.g. practicing a trade by not being apprenticed was legal and removed the requirement for a minimum of seven year apprenticeships. Apprenticeships remained relatively popular with many occupations that involved practical skills and with a number of the professions. Towards to end of the 19th century approximately 340,000 apprentices were involved each year in preparing to enter building, engineering, shipbuilding and woodworking occupations.
Participation in apprenticeships reached its zenith in the years following 1945 and reflected a strong relationship between the community, employers and the apprentice. The apprenticeships were at this time still subjected to a time served contract and were in the main determined, to varying degrees by the trade unions, employers, and a number of guilds and employers’ associations. Interestingly the State played little role either by support or intervention – that was to come later.
As already mentioned the programmes continued to survive through the early 20th century and by the mid-1960s around 33% of male school leavers aged 15-17 entered some form of apprenticeship programme. However after the 1960s the numbers engaged in apprenticeships declined significantly across most occupational areas as various industries themselves declined. Surveys showed that the number of apprenticeships in employment decreased from 370,000 in 1979 to 180,000 in 1995 (1). Although there were approximately 171,000 apprentices in 1968 they had declined to approximately 34,500 in 1990. A few sectors continued to recruit apprentices including catering, construction and engineering but the numbers were much reduced from previous decades,
In the 1960s politicians, policy makers and employers began to question the effectiveness of the existing model/framework for apprenticeships and highlighted a number of key concerns including:
·         They had not kept pace with the ever accelerating pace of industrial, technological and scientific advances of the time
·         The time served aspect was redundant, not focused on outcomes and did not recognise fully how people acquired skills at different rates
·         Too often the important issue of standards were overlooked because of the time served approach.
·         Also a number of politicians were against the continuing involvement and influence of the trade unions and political dogma became more apparent especially during the Thatcher years.
·         Women seemed to be excluded from training in many industries as data shows that the programme participants were exclusively male.
After 1960 as the history of technical education has shown a large number of initiatives were introduced to address some of the weaknesses in the apprenticeship model/framework. These included the creation of the Industrial Training Boards (ITBs). The Certificate of Pre-Vocational Education (CPVE) and numerous MSC initiatives including Youth Training (YT) and the Technical and Education Initiative (TVEI). These and other schemes ultimately failed to address yet alone resolve many of the long standing problems  besetting Britain’s technical and vocation training and vocational system and ability to create a well qualified and up to date workforce. The majority of these initiatives catered for the young unemployed who would have been eligible for the old style apprentice unfortunately much of the new provision was of poor quality and further contributed to the already low standing and esteem of technical and vocational training. These initiatives were more about social engineering, cheap labour and massaging/fixing the unemployment statistics for political advantage. Finally the rapid decline in traditional apprenticeships could be mapped to the following factors:
·         The massive decline in the manufacturing base in Britain from the mid-1970s
·         Weakened trade unions
·         Disappearance of key employment legislation and the weakening of contractual agreements coupled with lack of funding for apprenticeship programmes
·         Falling demand for the products and services produced by the apprenticeship trades
·         Successive raising of the school leaving age and the subsequent increase in post-16 participation in schools and colleges
·         The impact of other programmes such as Youth Training Scheme, Youth Training
From the mid 1990s successive governments paid some attention to apprenticeships and attempted to reconfigure the programmes by prescribing more precisely the delivery, funding and inspection systems. It is interesting to map the degree of state intervention in apprenticeships to that in technical and commercial education and training. From the traditional model in the Middle Ages of master and apprentice relationship, to the levy-funded programmes of the Industrial Training Boards in the 1960s/70s and then in the early 1990s, non-existent support or state intervention. Since the early 1990s successive governments have introduced a number of reforms with a multitude of titles and operating rationales e.g., Modern, Accelerated, Advanced, Foundation, Graduate etc.  For example Modern Apprenticeships (MAs) were introduced in 1994 for 16 to 24 year olds in 14 industrial sectors and then later expanded to cover 80 different occupational areas. The programmes were offered at two levels namely level 2 (NVQ 2 and called Foundation MA) and level 3 (NVQ 3 with key skills and called Advanced MA). To add value to the awards the Technical Certificates were introduced in 2001/2. Technical certificates could include existing qualifications e.g. CGLI, Edexcel or a newly created qualification to satisfy the requirements of a specific occupational sector. The technical certificate provides the underpinning knowledge and understanding for the appropriate NVQ (remember one of the criticisms of NVQs was that they lacked the necessary underpinning knowledge and understanding).  Following these numerous reviews and reforms and increased investment numbers doubled from 1997 to 2009 from approximately 75,000 to around 180,000 and at present more ambitious targets have been set to further increase participation in the programmes. Completion rates too have improved e.g. In 2001  only 24% finished the full programme whilst in 2009 63% completed – although questions still remain about the quality of the programmes. The current government will no doubt further reform the apprenticeship model/framework hopefully to offer higher quality programmes for the large number of unemployed young people, a figure which in December 2010 stands at over 950,000. If properly managed and supported by government and employers apprenticeships could provide a valuable set of opportunities during the current recession and produce a more qualified workforce for the future beginning to address the continuing low skill equilibrium in the country. It is essential that employers play the leading role in their development, implementation and monitoring  and that the programmes are viewed and promoted as possessing an equal value to other education and training programmes e.g. GCSEs, GCE ‘A ‘Levels, other NVQS i.e. they are fully recognised as having parity of esteem with all other awards/qualifications.
Apprenticeships do have a major role to play in education and training because In spite of the catalogue of concerns cited above the apprenticeship model/framework has always possessed a number of positive and distinct characteristics that add value to the technical and vocational education and training experience namely:
·         The programmes are largely work based and as a result provide direct and real experience of the workplace
·         There is a strong working relationship between the employer and the apprentice that should allow individual companies an opportunity to shape and manage the training programme to their own needs
·         Apprentices can attend college for additional studies (off-job) which complement and reinforce their work placed training (on-job training)
·          Apprentices are paid whilst they are learning.
An Additional Observation on numeracy and mathematics
An historical aside is that most advanced mathematics teaching during the Middle Ages was done by the trade guilds through apprentice programmes. For some in trades like architecture, building, mercantile and other commercial enterprises, topics such as arithmetic and geometry were taught in the workplace.
(1)    Labour Force Survey. Various 1990s/2000s
‘World Class Skills: Implementing the Leitch Review of Skills in England’ DIUS. 2007
‘Recruitment to Skilled Trades’ G. Williams.RKP.1957.
Wilson.C. ‘England’s Apprenticeship 1603-1763’. Longmans. 1965.
See also the History of Technical Education and the pen portrait on Livery Companies and Guilds on this website.
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