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The University of Southampton
Southampton Education School

Ways of Improving the quality of apprenticeships

Research by academics at Southampton Education School has helped improve the quality of apprenticeships across the country and has informed vocational and education training policy at the highest level.

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Improving apprenticeships

Research challenge

Modern Apprenticeships were launched in 1994. It was the first time apprenticeships had been incorporated into UK vocational education and training policy since 1814. However, research led by Professor Alison Fuller and Professor Lorna Unwin drew attention to the limitations of the government’s approach to apprenticeships, particularly the focus on quantity rather than quality.

The challenge was to develop a tool that would allow expansive apprenticeships to be created that would enable individuals to learn their occupation in a holistic way, gain recognised vocational qualifications and provide a robust platform for career progression.


The Modern Apprenticeships were created to replace the youth training schemes that were set up to counter mass youth unemployment in the 1980s. These training schemes were widely condemned as failing to provide meaningful professional training. However, Alison and Lorna’s initial research showed that these new Modern Apprenticeships were restrictive giving young people few opportunities to develop skills beyond those need to complete narrow tasks.

Our solution

An innovative study by Alison and Lorna revealed the limitations of the government’s programme, including the emphasis on quantity rather than quality.

The pair examined apprenticeships within small and medium enterprises in the steel industry and their findings led to them developing a new conceptual framework tool The expansive-restrictive continuum that training providers and employers could use to assess the quality of their apprenticeships.

The framework helps them to identify the key features that characterise different approaches to apprenticeships, including the relationship of the apprenticeship to the business and the use of qualifications as a platform for progression.

They have also compiled a substantial body of international research that shows the benefit of the apprenticeship as a model of learning and how it can contribute to national productivity, organisational performance and individual career progression.

A good quality apprenticeship offers a structured programme of learning through on and off the job training delivered by skilled staff, whereas poor quality apprenticeships do little more than convert existing employees to apprentices.

What was the impact?

The expansive-restrictive continuum has helped to improve the quality of apprenticeships around the UK. It has been cited in a number of policy documents and is published and promoted to providers and employers by the National Apprenticeship Service and the Learning and Skills Improvement Service.

Alison and Lorna were called on to be Specialist Advisers to the Department for Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills House of Commons Select Committee’s scrutiny of the Apprenticeship Bill when they discussed with members how the expansive-restricted continuum could improve the quality of apprenticeships.

As well as contributing to policy debates, their research has fed into diversity and equality policies. Their framework has been used by the Trades Union Congress’s UnionLearn to evaluate its own in-house scheme as well as the quality of employers’ apprenticeships schemes. The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has also used it to help develop its policy on apprenticeships.

They have been commissioned by the Learning and Skills Council to produce a free-to-download employer guide Creating and Supporting Expansive Apprenticeships: A Guide for Employers, Training Providers and Colleges of Further Education. The guide has already received hundreds of online hits and downloads and is helping to influence practitioners’ working methods.

Key Publications

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