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The history of apprenticeships

As the government champions ‘modern apprenticeships’, it is easy to slip into the misunderstanding that this type of learning is as modern as its title suggests.

Jane McGuire
12th February 2016
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As we take a look back at the long and varied history of apprenticeships, it’s important to note the significance of the term and its roots. Around for much longer than the university based degree, is understanding the history of apprenticeships key to breaking the stereotype it now holds?


- The earliest formation of the term can be seen in the middle ages, through the relationship between master and apprentice. During this period in history, the parent or guardian of the apprentice would agree a fee with a Guild’s Master craftsman, and would pay them a premium in exchange for five to nine years of training.


- 1563 saw the introduction of a new act of parliament under Queen Elizabeth I. ‘The statue of artifices’ was passed to regulate and protect the apprenticeship system. Pretty similar to the recent legalisation of the term, this act forbid anyone from practising a trade or crafts without first serving a seven year period as an apprentice to a master.


- In 1604, under ‘Elizabethan Poor Law’, the church gave poor, illegitimate and orphaned children of both sexes the chance to get into the regular system of skilled apprenticeships. For those from a poorer background, these apprenticeships were usually in sectors such as farming, labouring and brick making. Although this may seem like a good development, many historians warn against looking back with rose tinted glasses, highlighting situations such as Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, where poor children were farmed out as cheap labour.  


- During the 18th Century, apprentice wages became the norm. Although these were not always regularised, there was an understanding that the master would pay the apprentice or their family a basic wage.


- The Industrial Revolution broke down a lot of the systems that favoured the craft system, where craftsmen would make a living from his own shop and become a master of his trade. However some industries adapted quickly, and subjects like engineering soon began following the apprenticeship followed by employment model. As a result, at this time, most apprentices were male recruits to ‘heavier’ industries.


- During the harder times of the 1920s-1930s, many apprentices were laid off rather than being offered a permanent job, in favour of employing cheaper, younger workers with less training.


- In the aftermath of the Second World War, the apprenticeship system saw improvements under the Labour Government. Employers and unions began to take technical education more seriously, and more training was available. For the first time, senior figures in the boardrooms of engineering companies such as Rolls Royce had started their careers as apprentices.


- Apprenticeship levels decreased once more in the 1970s, as global competition for jobs increased and many companies found they could no longer afford to offer extra training. Also at this time, young people would begin to see education at college or university as a more favourable option.


- More recently, with the rise of student fees and the changes in government funding, apprenticeships have undergone more changes. Nowadays, the term is legalised and there are clear laws explaining what you can expect from your employer. With plans to create three million more apprenticeships by 2020, there are definitely positive changes in the near future.


If you are interested in finding your perfect apprenticeship, why not have a browse of the options listed here? Still confused by the recent changes? Take a look at this infographic.


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