A short history of apprenticeships in England: from medieval craft guilds to the twenty-first century

Today marks the start of National Apprenticeships Week. We take a look back at how apprenticeships have changed over the last nine centuries.

Master and apprentice: Middle ages to 1900

Apprenticeships in England can be traced back to the medieval craft guilds in the Middle Ages, originating from the custom of upper class parents sending children away to live with host families. By the Tudor period, despite overall numbers being quite small, apprenticeships were generally seen as an acceptable form of training. The system had not been modernised and it was still the case that:

“indentures were drawn up, binding servant to master and vice versa; in which the master personally taught the apprentice; took responsibility for the latter’s moral welfare; and gave him board and lodgings” 

(Charles More, Skills and the English Working Class, Croom Helm, 1980, p41)

The first national apprenticeship system of training was introduced in 1563 by the Statute of Artificers, which included conditions which could be likened to apprenticeship minimum standards today; Masters should have no more than three apprentices and apprenticeships should last seven years. The Act was repealed 251 years later as the popularity of apprenticeships waned in the early nineteenth century, partly due to conditions in factories and the perceived exploitation of young apprentices.

The rise and decline of apprenticeships: 1900-1992

Apprenticeships did, however, remain popular in the professions and had spread to newer industries of engineering, shipbuilding, plumbing and electrical work. At a very rough estimate there were over 340,000 apprentices in any year in the early 1900s. This growth continued after both World Wars and by the 1960s a third of boys were leaving school to become apprentices.

However, for most of the 20th century, there were no major reforms and employers criticised the system as being restrictive, too focussed on time served and unresponsive to the needs of industry. In 1968 the Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations concluded:

…apprenticeship is a farce and provides less training than a properly constituted course lasting only a few months…The fact that a man has completed an apprenticeship does not therefore of itself guarantee that he has acquired any particular level of skills, or that he has passed any form of test of ability.

After peaking in the 1960s apprenticeships entered a slow decline, with half as many apprentices in employment in 1995 as there were in 1979.

Reform – the introduction of Modern Apprentices: 1993-2004

A new apprenticeships scheme called “Modern Apprenticeships” was announced in 1993 and rolled out over the following two years. Modern Apprentices would count as employees and be paid a wage. There would be a written agreement between employers and apprentices. There was no longer an emphasis on how long someone was an apprentice for, but instead what qualification they received. Modern apprentices were required to work towards an NVQ level 3 qualification, equivalent to A-levels today.

Shortly afterwards National Traineeships were introduced at level 2, equivalent to GCSEs. These were intended as “a progression route into apprenticeships for those young people who were not ready to enter a level three programme.”

By the end of 1998 almost a quarter of a million people in England and Wales had started a Modern Apprenticeship. The most popular sectors were business administration, engineering and retailing. The majority of employers were small firms and there were very few employers with more than five apprentices.

The Modern Apprenticeship system continued to evolve with National Traineeships becoming Foundation Modern Apprenticeships and “Modern Apprenticeships” becoming “Advanced Modern Apprenticeships.” In the early 2000s national frameworks were introduced defining the minimum standards required for each apprenticeship.

Apprenticeships for everyone: 2004-2010

Another rebrand in 2004 saw Advanced Modern Apprenticeships become “Advanced Apprenticeships” and Foundation Modern Apprenticeships become simply “Apprenticeships” (these would later be rebranded again as “Intermediate Apprenticeships”). At the same time the upper age limit of 25 was removed and pre-apprenticeships were introduced for people not ready to enter a full apprenticeship. Young apprenticeships were also introduced for 14-16 year olds still in school.

The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 introduced the apprenticeship offer: a duty to provide an apprenticeship place to all qualified 16 to 19 year olds who did not have one and wanted one. The offer never commenced after it was removed by the Education Act 2011.

New growth: 2010–2015

After the 2010 election, Higher Apprenticeships were introduced (equivalent to foundation degrees or above) and the Young Apprenticeship scheme was ended. Financial incentive payments were later introduced for small firms hiring apprentices aged 16-24.

As more over 25s became apprentices the number of apprenticeship starts doubled between 2009/10 and 2011/12 to over half a million. Numbers have remained relatively high, although there was a drop in the number of apprentices aged 25 and over after the short lived introduction of Advanced Learning Loans for Apprentices.

New minimum standards introduced in 2012 required that all apprenticeships must last at least a year, provide 30 hours’ employment a week and a minimum amount of guided learning. Also included was a requirement to offer training in maths and English for apprentices who have not already achieved level 2 (GCSE standard). Following recommendations from the Richard Review of Apprenticeships, a new funding system is currently being trialled alongside new apprenticeships designed by employer groups.

Author: James Mirza-Davies

Find out more

Members and Members’ staff can find out more by signing up on the Parliamentary Intranet to tomorrow’s (10 March 2015) Commons Library Talk, Apprenticeships in England: past, present and future.

Further information and sources: