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Back to the Future – reform is just part of Apprenticeship evolution

In his latest blog, Paddy Patterson of Maverish Ltd and founder of Oxfordshire Apprenticeships takes a look into the history of Apprenticeships and discusses some interesting similarities and differences.

Recently I had the privilege of attending the Freemen of Oxford’s annual Apprenticeship awards at Oxford Town Hall. It was my first time attending the event, now in its ninth year.  Speaking to the Awards Secretary John Sanders - who is also the Chairman of Oxfordshire County Council - I learned that the Freemen are a craft guild organisation, master craftsmen who can trace their history back to at least the battle of Ashdown in 871 when King Alfred gave them Port Meadow for their help in repelling Danish invaders. The Freemen were “free” men, i.e. they controlled the town of Oxford – different to labourers who worked for the Barons as serfs. Traditionally, one of the ways to become a Freeman was to complete a seven-year Apprenticeship.

John also explained the his role in the creation of the Freemen’s annual Apprentice Awards; “One of the many remaining quirks of the Freemen is that the Lord Mayor each year can still appoint his/her “childe” as a new Freeman. That’s how I became a Freeman – both childe and husband of the then Lord Mayor. That’s when I suggested to my fellow Freemen that as we had a fine history of masters and Apprentices, building the City to its present architectural and business excellence, then we should encourage Apprenticeships in modern Oxford, too. And so the Freemen’s Apprenticeship Awards scheme was born.”

It is a shame that most people know little of the history of Apprenticeships and while the modern-day version is very different in many ways, their core purpose of facilitating the passing of skills and knowledge is what has defined the programme since the very beginning.

The origins of Apprenticeships probably lie in the medieval craft guilds in twelfth- and thirteenth-century London, which gradually spread to other parts of the country. Indeed it was this ‘custom of London’ that was accepted as a national standard in the 1563 Statute of Artificers. It set a minimum term of seven years service for an Apprentice and in theory, no-one was allowed to practice a trade unless they had served an Apprenticeship. It also saw a major move towards ‘inclusion’ to make Apprenticeships available (whether they wanted one or not) to poorer classes. Until that point there was certainly something of the ‘gold standard’ about Apprenticeships with only the ‘best’ families being deemed suitable to provide candidates. Indeed statues of 1388/89 and 1405/06 banned the children of rural labourers becoming Apprentices (interestingly the citizens of Oxford twice petitioned for exemption from this legislation). 

The Industrial Revolution appears to have made the ‘old’ system less relevant and popular, and the 1563 Statute was repealed in 1814 amid long-standing concerns about exploitation of Apprentices and working conditions in the factories. Which isn’t to say Apprenticeships disappeared and they began to grow in ‘newer’ industries such as engineering and shipbuilding by the turn of the 20th Century. By the 1960s, around a third of 15-17 year old boys started an Apprenticeship upon leaving school, which has been referred to as the “high water mark” for Apprenticeships in England. There was slow decline in the popularity of the programme over the following decades and by 1990 there were just over 50,000 Apprentices in England. In 1993 came something of an ‘Apprenticeships: Redux’ when ‘Modern Apprenticeships’ were announced (initially set at Level 3 – isn’t that interesting?) and when Labour came into government, they incorporated the former National Traineeship scheme (Level 2) into the Modern Apprenticeship family which naturally saw significant growth above the 225,000 people who had started a ‘Modern Apprenticeship’ by that point. And the rest is, well, history.

It is interesting looking back through Apprenticeship history with 21st century eyes. For example, ‘Employer ownership’ often had a far more literal meaning, certainly while Apprenticeships were governed by the 1563 Statute. Imagine an Apprentice of today living in their employer’s home, receiving no wages and being prevented under the terms of their Apprentice Agreement to ‘court’ or be married?  

Today, an Apprentice cannot legally start until after the final Friday in June of Year 11 where they will either be 15 or 16. To think it took until 1816 for a ban on apprenticing children under 9! Though by no means the norm universally, pauper children as young as 6 and 7 were frequently ‘bound’ by ‘Overseers’ to trades such as housewifery or chimney sweeping (think Oliver Twist).

So Apprenticeships have reformed and developed over the centuries and I think it is worth considering that when we look to the future. This may feel like a period of Apprenticeship revolution but really it’s the next phase in an evolution.

What do you think? Join us for #OAHour on Thursday 7th April from 1-2pm to share your thoughts and views.

You can hear Paddy talking about Apprenticeships present and future in his presentation 'Norms and Reforms: Making Sense of Apprenticeships' at the B4 event Business in Oxford 2016 on 21st April at the Said Business School. Find out more and book tickets at: http://businessinoxford.com