Tom Bewick

@TomBewick talks to the International Network of Innovative Apprenticeships (INAP) hosted by the Urban Institute, Washington D.C. 

Thanks for inviting me to this international seminar today.

I’m the chief executive of the UK’s Federation of Awarding Bodies – the collective voice of the awarding and assessment industry. It includes the regulated assessment bodies that are involved in apprenticeship as ‘end-point assessment organisations’ – EPAOs.

I want to stress, however, that today I’m giving this audience a policy expert point of view; not the formal views of my organisaiton.

I’d like to talk about the apprenticeship programme in England by inviting you to think about 3 things:

  • What is distinctive about England’s apprenticeship programme, compared to other mature international systems?
  • How has a major reform agenda since 2012 actually panned out in terms of the overall performance of the new policy, in relation to England’s apprenticeship programme?
  • And what can we take from the experience of the pandemic for the future of apprenticeships in my country?

And finally, it’s worth stressing for those of you who are not familiar with post-compulsory education and skills in Britain, that I’m exclusively talking about England today.

That’s because education policy, including apprenticeships, is fully devolved to assemblies that sit in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

While England does not have its own Parliament, our laws on this subject are made at Westminster. We even have our own dedicated skills and apprenticeships minister – a former apprentice herself and committed politician, Gillian Keegan MP.

Interestingly, I’m told Scotland is planning its own apprenticeship reform agenda over the coming months that will attempt to be more like the Swiss model in future. Definitely one for keen observers at INAP to watch very carefully! 

So, what is distinctive about the English apprenticeship programme?

  • All apprentices must be employed. We got rid of simulated apprenticeships run by community colleges back in 2009; and since then the term “apprenticeship” is a legally protected term; linked to a government sanctioned programme. The minimum duration for an apprenticeship is 1-year; with the average length of programmes running for 2-years, depending on the attainment level and type of occupation.
  • Apprenticeship programmes are based on new national occupational Standards, which have been developed with employer groups, overseen by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (itself a body less than 5-years-old).
  • Since 2017, the programme has been financed by a UK-wide apprenticeship levy on firms with an annual payroll bill of £3 million plus (about USD$4.2 million). The payroll tax is levied at 1.5% of payroll, which in aggregate, raises about £2.8 billion per annum for the Treasury. The amount raised in England to spend on apprenticeships is £2.5 billion.
  • The Levy paying employers have their own digital apprenticeship accounts set up with the tax office. They can use these accounts to ‘purchase’ any legally approved apprenticeship programs. It is for this reason that many observers describe the English apprenticeship model as “employer responsive” since firms exercise a sovereign choice in deciding which Standard and which training provider they want to hire or engage to support the apprentice.
  • There are over 600 approved programmes or Standards from which firms can employ an apprentice. They are divided into attainment levels from Level 2 (which is the equivalent of a high-school leaving certificate), right up to Level 6 and 7, which equates to degree and Masters level. Indeed, England now proudly boasts about having an “expansive system of apprenticeships”, where the glass ceiling on achieving a university awarded degree has now been lifted, via the degree apprenticeship programme.
  • It is now possible, for example, for an engineer to learn and earn their way to a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering without ever being incumbered with the average £54,000 of graduate debt. I want to stress though it is still early days in terms of this route being made more widely available.
  • Germany and Switzerland have half the number of standards that England does; and there is an active debate going on here at this very moment about what the optimal number of apprenticeship Standards should be.
  • Finally, it’s worth stressing that when it comes to the delivery of apprenticeship training it is intermediaries that deliver over two-thirds of the programme in England. What I mean by intermediaries is organisations called: independent training providers (ITPs).
  • They operate in a regulated market, but unlike other countries, community colleges deliver only around a quarter of England’s apprenticeship programmes. The rest is handled by the private sector, the ITPs.

Moving on now to the talk about what has happened since the big reform programme began in 2012.

It’s worth just recalling briefly what the key concerns were about England’s apprenticeship programme a decade ago. An entrepreneur called Doug Richard (actually a Canadian by birth) was hired by government to write an independent report. The benchmarks he set for success were as follows:

  • Apprenticeship must be a contract between an employer and an employee
  • He called for apprenticeships to be seen as helping the next generation of workers access the labour market in competent and skilled roles
  • He called for formal qualifications in apprenticeships to be scaled back to be replaced by two new innovations; first, the development of employer-led standards and second, the system of end-point assessments. That is, like the driving test, how we assess for driver competency with an independent check on performance linked to a clear standard. These assessments are carried out by independent End-Point-Assessment Organisations in a regulated market. There are currently over 300 EPAOs on the register.
  • Fourth, Richard’s main conclusion was that if these reforms were introduced, then a lot more employers and an increased number of young people would get involved in England’s apprenticeship programme.
  • Indeed, buoyed up by the Richard Review, the government in 2015, facing a general election, made a manifesto commitment to secure 3 million additional apprenticeships by 2020.

Obviously, things have moved on significantly in the last 8 or 9 years. And over the last year, we’ve all been hit by the global pandemic.

So where are we now with England’s apprenticeship programme and what are the key challenges as we move into recovery mode?

  • The first thing to highlight is that the government missed its 3 million target on apprenticeships by a country mile. Today in England there are around 700,000 apprentices on programme. Even before the pandemic, the decline in apprenticeship starts had been evident since 2017.
  • The most important comparative variable though is the ratio of apprentices in the workforce per 100,000 workers. In England the figure is only 11; compared to 39 in Australia and 41 in Germany.
  • There has been a 42 per cent decline in apprenticeship starts for young people under the age of 25 in that period.
  • House of Commons research has found that apprenticeship opportunities have been increasingly concentrated in the service occupations in Southern England, with less opportunities for skilled trades occupations being available in the North of the country.
  • Government data on the diversity of the programme (by that I mean class, gender and ethnicity) shows a mixed picture. Not surprisingly, perhaps, a lack of diversity in some apprenticeship programmes is a reflection of wider inequalities in the labour market.
  • Crucially, the government has even missed its own target on providing apprenticeship slots in the public sector, which was evident even before the pandemic hit.
  • In summary, today’s apprenticeship programme is very different from the one reformers like Doug Richard originally envisaged.
  • The development of new Standards has not led to a rush of new employers wanting to take them up.
  • The vast majority of apprenticeship opportunities are now taken up by the over-25s, not young entrants to the labour market.
  • And when we analyse new starts, we see that the most popular apprenticeships are in management or at degree level.

In conclusion then, these trends raise fundamental questions about the purpose and equity of England’s apprenticeship programme.

It’s why I wrote in an article last November that while there are some brilliant examples of apprenticeship delivery, the English apprenticeship policy has lost its way in recent years.

Experts and sector leaders in the system, like me, have called for a major recalibration of the programme. Time is pressing, so I’ll try and neatly summarise what needs to happen next as we emerge from this pandemic:

  1. We need apprenticeship in England to tilt back towards younger people in the labour market;
  2. The programme needs to diversify to provide more ladders of opportunity in occupations, particularly where males dominate; or those that systemically fail to recruit under-represented groups.
  3. And finally, we need a more relentless focus on quality. Only this week, would you believe, our training inspectorate, Ofsted, discovered one provider who was claiming for apprentices that didn’t even have a job.

Finally, it’s important to end on a positive note. A recent survey of parents in England found that 48% of them said they would prefer their children to do a high-quality apprenticeship or technical qualification. This just shows that the dial on cultural acceptance of the learn and earn route to success is really starting to change for the better.

Tom Bewick is the chief executive of Federation of Awarding Bodies – the UK’s collective voice of regulated awarding and assessment organisations, including those assessing apprenticeships

Tom also hosts a popular weekly podcast called Skills Worlds Live, available or where you usually get your podcasts.

You may also be interested in these articles:

Sponsored Video


Upcoming FE Events

Advertiser Skyscrapers

Latest Education News

Further Education News

The FE News Channel gives you the latest education news and updates on emerging education strategies and the #FutureofEducation and the #FutureofWork.

Providing trustworthy and positive Further Education news and views since 2003, we are a digital news channel with a mixture of written word articles, podcasts and videos. Our specialisation is providing you with a mixture of the latest education news, our stance is always positive, sector building and sharing different perspectives and views from thought leaders, to provide you with a think tank of new ideas and solutions to bring the education sector together and come up with new innovative solutions and ideas.

FE News publish exclusive peer to peer thought leadership articles from our feature writers, as well as user generated content across our network of over 3000 Newsrooms, offering multiple sources of the latest education news across the Education and Employability sectors.

FE News also broadcast live events, podcasts with leading experts and thought leaders, webinars, video interviews and Further Education news bulletins so you receive the latest developments in Skills News and across the Apprenticeship, Further Education and Employability sectors.

Every week FE News has over 200 articles and new pieces of content per week. We are a news channel providing the latest Further Education News, giving insight from multiple sources on the latest education policy developments, latest strategies, through to our thought leaders who provide blue sky thinking strategy, best practice and innovation to help look into the future developments for education and the future of work.

In Jan 2021, FE News had over 173,000 unique visitors according to Google Analytics and over 200 new pieces of news content every week, from thought leadership articles, to the latest education news via written word, podcasts, video to press releases from across the sector, putting us in the top 2,000 websites in the UK.

We thought it would be helpful to explain how we tier our latest education news content and how you can get involved and understand how you can read the latest daily Further Education news and how we structure our FE Week of content:

Main Features

Our main features are exclusive and are thought leadership articles and blue sky thinking with experts writing peer to peer news articles about the future of education and the future of work. The focus is solution led thought leadership, sharing best practice, innovation and emerging strategy. These are often articles about the future of education and the future of work, they often then create future education news articles. We limit our main features to a maximum of 20 per week, as they are often about new concepts and new thought processes. Our main features are also exclusive articles responding to the latest education news, maybe an insight from an expert into a policy announcement or response to an education think tank report or a white paper.

FE Voices

FE Voices was originally set up as a section on FE News to give a voice back to the sector. As we now have over 3,000 newsrooms and contributors, FE Voices are usually thought leadership articles, they don’t necessarily have to be exclusive, but usually are, they are slightly shorter than Main Features. FE Voices can include more mixed media with the Further Education News articles, such as embedded podcasts and videos. Our sector response articles asking for different comments and opinions to education policy announcements or responding to a report of white paper are usually held in the FE Voices section. If we have a live podcast in an evening or a radio show such as SkillsWorldLive radio show, the next morning we place the FE podcast recording in the FE Voices section.

Sector News

In sector news we have a blend of content from Press Releases, education resources, reports, education research, white papers from a range of contributors. We have a lot of positive education news articles from colleges, awarding organisations and Apprenticeship Training Providers, press releases from DfE to Think Tanks giving the overview of a report, through to helpful resources to help you with delivering education strategies to your learners and students.


We have a range of education podcasts on FE News, from hour long full production FE podcasts such as SkillsWorldLive in conjunction with the Federation of Awarding Bodies, to weekly podcasts from experts and thought leaders, providing advice and guidance to leaders. FE News also record podcasts at conferences and events, giving you one on one podcasts with education and skills experts on the latest strategies and developments.

We have over 150 education podcasts on FE News, ranging from EdTech podcasts with experts discussing Education 4.0 and how technology is complimenting and transforming education, to podcasts with experts discussing education research, the future of work, how to develop skills systems for jobs of the future to interviews with the Apprenticeship and Skills Minister.

We record our own exclusive FE News podcasts, work in conjunction with sector partners such as FAB to create weekly podcasts and daily education podcasts, through to working with sector leaders creating exclusive education news podcasts.

Education Video Interviews

FE News have over 700 FE Video interviews and have been recording education video interviews with experts for over 12 years. These are usually vox pop video interviews with experts across education and work, discussing blue sky thinking ideas and views about the future of education and work.


FE News has a free events calendar to check out the latest conferences, webinars and events to keep up to date with the latest education news and strategies.

FE Newsrooms

The FE Newsroom is home to your content if you are a FE News contributor. It also help the audience develop relationship with either you as an individual or your organisation as they can click through and ‘box set’ consume all of your previous thought leadership articles, latest education news press releases, videos and education podcasts.

Do you want to contribute, share your ideas or vision or share a press release?

If you want to write a thought leadership article, share your ideas and vision for the future of education or the future of work, write a press release sharing the latest education news or contribute to a podcast, first of all you need to set up a FE Newsroom login (which is free): once the team have approved your newsroom (all content, newsrooms are all approved by a member of the FE News team- no robots are used in this process!), you can then start adding content (again all articles, videos and podcasts are all approved by the FE News editorial team before they go live on FE News). As all newsrooms and content are approved by the FE News team, there will be a slight delay on the team being able to review and approve content.

 RSS IconRSS Feed Selection Page