The History of Apprenticeships

The fascinating history of Apprenticeships in the UK

How old is the first apprentice? 

We’re sorry to say that this is a trick question. You may believe that the first apprentice would be the first students under the modern scheme adopted in 1994, but the truth is they are long gone. 

The first official apprentice began their learning back in the 16th Century, but the practice of learning on the job dates back much further. Here we look at how apprenticeships have changed throughout history, to become the standard-based system we have today.


Pre 1500s: Medieval ways of working

Before knights and chivalry fell on their swords and became romanticised by history, the name of the ‘assistant’ was a squire. This person was usually a young man who looked after the knight, who in return for their services - which consisted of armour maintenance and looking after horses - would learn the important roles and values a knight had in society. 

This tradition continued across local parishes for people in all walks of life.

However, as times changed and many wished to travel away from the control of their local parishes to seek opportunities, lawmakers saw it was time to introduce a national system of learning. 


1500s: First official apprenticeship system adopted

In 1563, Elizabeth I signed an edict to introduce the Statute of Artificers. Nothing to do with trickery, this is the first national apprenticeship training system that allowed skilled craftsmen to bring on up to three apprentices - depending on the size of their business - for seven years. 

This statute set out a regulated and prescribed system for working conditions, pay, and the relationship between the craftsman and the apprentice. 

1600s: Reforms injure the reputation of apprenticeships

From introducing new levels of regulation and boosting its reputation, to lowering it in one lifetime shows how volatile the first Elizabethan age was - and some may say nothing much has changed since. In 1601, the laws around apprenticeships changed due to the Relief of the Poor Act. 

Set up to combat the rising population of those in destitution, apprenticeships were used as a way to indenture young people into work if their parents didn’t have the means to care for them. 

This change from a voluntary agreement to a form of punishment led to the souring of relations between craftsmen and their forced apprentice - as many were struggling and another mouth to feed was always a burden. 


1800s: Victorian demand   

Though reforms were made to the Poor Act over time, changing the relations again, the original statute stood for almost 300 years. 

However, Victorian progress revealed gaps in these old laws and in the level of education. Standards for how working people should learn how to read, write, and carry out arithmetic were introduced, which in turn revealed bad working conditions. 

Though the Victorian age has become infamous for its lack of care for workers, they repealed the 1563 statute, and the management of apprenticeships was reclaimed by the guild associations. 

One such association was City and Guilds, founded in 1878 to provide, protect, and promote the standard of technical education.


1900s: Modern education takes shape

The turbulence of the early 20th Century pushed back apprenticeships once again. With mass conscription in the First and Second World Wars, numbers dropped significantly and a skills shortage swept the country. 

Unlike most things in daily life, women were able to take up apprenticeships, however they were usually offered ones in professions to become seamstresses or bakers, not carpenters and engineers. 

Unlike a university education, there was no official ban, so once the wars began, women were able to learn vital skills to expand their occupational opportunities and plug the skills gap.  

Interrupted apprenticeships came into force during this time to allow people to take shorter courses, rather than the multi-year average. 


1950s - 1990s: The end of apprenticeships? 

The peace of the post war era did not carry over to the world of apprenticeships. The 1960s saw major criticism from the Royal Commission on Trade Unions which said that the apprenticeship guilds criteria for choosing candidates were too narrowly focused. 

At the same time, acceptance into universities was rising to unseen levels - as 37% of school leavers in the 1960s were accepted in comparison to just 4% a decade earlier.

This saw apprenticeship numbers dwindle as many begin to eye a different kind of education. The economic hardship of the 1980s did nothing to help this change of attitude as the lack of work led to many companies ceasing their ability to host apprenticeship schemes. 

Another reformation introduced in this decade was the Youth Training Program, a controversial initiative that allowed school leavers between 16 and 17 to learn on the job. However, it was criticised as there was very little substance or tracking of educational value, which opened the doors for the potential for exploitation and the flouting of child labour laws. 

To tackle this, NVQs were created to standardise and assess the quality of education, rather than an automatic certification. Despite all these efforts, and another reformation in 1994, the levels of apprentices hit an all time low. 

2000s: Changes for a new millennium

Apprenticeships as we know them were signed into law in 1994, however they were developed into the Advanced Modern Apprenticeships and Foundation Modern Apprenticeships in 2004.

Accessibility to a university education had reached the masses, and many families were seeing their first university graduates - something which over time became a pseudo-status symbol. 

As many parents and teachers began to push students toward universities, apprenticeships still suffered under low numbers, though not at the lows of the mid 90s or 1970s.

2010s onwards: Apprenticeships of today

Today’s apprenticeships came to be in 2017. Standards were introduced and the end-point assessment system of tracking learning and certification quality became the norm for passing all levels of a qualification. 

Four years on, and the effects of these are beginning to take hold. With the need for assessment, more specific standards have to be created to ensure the right set of skills is looked at. 

However, this takes significant investment, and some training providers are beginning to blend their standards into more generic qualifications that can suit all in order to be efficient and save money. 

Flexible internships have also been introduced to allow apprentices to learn different skills at different locations with multiple employers should they need to. Sadly, major players in this have begun to withdraw, so this could be a way of learning consigned to history.

Though the landscape of apprenticeships has drastically changed since the word was first included in historical records, the principle has remained the same - to gather educational and training benefits directly from employers. 

From frameworks to standards, apprenticeships are always changing, and so are the ways EPAs manage assessments. Skilltech's platform helps you meet these challenges head on - allowing you to adapt to the changing times with new functionalities to make the process simpler for EPAs and better for apprentices. 


If you’re an EPAO and want to help streamline this process for yourself and your apprentices, learn more about Skilltech Solutions and epaPRO. 

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