Apprenticeships Past and Present in Britain

Posted: 2nd of December 2014 by Anonymous

Modern apprentices receive wages, live at home and have regulated working hours. But how would you feel if your apprenticeship agreement meant you had to leave your family and move in with a “master”? What if once your contract was signed, you couldn’t be released from it for 7 years?

How apprenticeships in Britain have changed over the years and data on the types and popularity of apprenticeships now available

Modern apprentices receive wages, live at home and have regulated working hours.  But how would you feel if your apprenticeship agreement meant you had to leave your family and move in with a “master”?  What if once your contract was signed, you couldn’t be released from it for 7 years?

Apprenticeships, in a form that we’d recognise today, have existed since the later Middle Ages.  The apprentices serving two centuries ago would have had a very different experience to that of young people today. 

In early modern usage, the clipped form ‘prentice’ was common but the full term comes from the latin verb apprehendere (to apprehend or learn), which in Middle English was written out as ‘aprentis’, which meant ‘learner of craft’. You can see the same root in continental European versions of the term:

Apprentice - Apprenticeship
Aprendiz - Aprendizaje (Spanish)
Apprenti – Apprentissage (French)
Apprendista – Apprendistato (Italian)
Aprendiz – Aprendizagem (Portuguese)

The Contract

Between the later Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution, apprenticeship was a vital part of industry.  For a master craftsman, acquiring an apprentice would be a considerable responsibility. They’d be expected to sign a contract with the young person’s parents; take the young person into their own home; provide food, lodging and clothing and to pass on their knowledge of their trade or craft.  However, there was one obvious benefit for the craftsman: cheap labour. 

Apprentices usually began between the ages of 12 and 15. The contract their parents signed bound them to the master for a number of years.  The parents would pay a fee to contribute towards the youngster’s food and board that the master would be expected to provide during the apprenticeship.

The term of “indenture” was usually 7 years, although it could be as many as 9.


Just like today, many apprentices were ambitious and prepared to work hard to become experts in their chosen trade.  Unfortunately, apprentices didn’t enjoy much freedom.  It was rare that they could choose their trade; it simply depended on what kinds of tradesmen their parents had connections with.

Once the contract was signed, the apprentice was obliged to serve out their term.  The young person was considered “indentured” or bound to their master.  If they ran away, their parents would be required to pay the cost of the lost labour to the master.

Secrets and Trust

Masters brought their apprentice into their home.  They lived with their family, shared their food and worked together daily.  It was important for an apprentice to demonstrate trustworthiness so the master would withhold the most advanced secrets of the trade until he was sure the trainee wouldn’t give them away to his competitors.


The apprenticeship system has been venerated throughout history. So much so that in 1653 the Statute of Apprentices was passed, making it illegal to practise a trade without serving 7 years of training under a master.

One of the reasons apprenticeships have been so respected throughout history is because of their close association with guilds.  A guild was simply a group of tradesmen, considered to be masters of their craft, who formed a group.  Guilds enjoyed considerable influence within their community and exerted a monopoly over their trade, often controlling the materials and tools necessary to practise.

Guilds took an active part in supporting and managing apprentices in an effort to ensure the highest standards.

The major guilds still exist today and many present-day apprentices will do formal qualifications via the City & Guilds Institute (such as QCFs at Levels 1 to 3 and diplomas for higher levels). The institute was founded in 1878 by the City of London and 16 associated livery companies as a deliberate attempt to improve and standardise the training of craftsmen, technicians and engineers in an era of rapid technological change. By 1900 it was running under a Royal Charter, granted by Queen Victoria and its influence continued to grow throughout the century.

Devils, Wrights and Throwsters

Most of us are familiar with apprenticeships in areas like carpentry, welding and catering, but there’s now more variety in apprenticeships than ever before.  It’s possible to find an apprenticeship in almost any sector and new opportunities are popping up all the time.  Some of the more cutting-edge professions in fields like science and technology have new and unfamiliar sounding names.  However, some of the most commonplace apprenticeship roles from history sound very strange to us now.  Here are three that would have been common from the middle ages up to the 19th century:

  • Cordwain

“Cordwain” or “Cordwainer” is an old word for a shoemaker.  It was originally reserved for practitioners who worked with a very soft kind of leather sourced from Córdoba in Spain, but eventually came to describe artisanal shoemakers.

  • Millwright

Millwright apprenticeships were a potentially lucrative opportunity.  Apprentices learned how to build machinery used in mills and even how to design and build the mills themselves.

  • Silk Throwster

The textile industry grew dramatically during the Industrial Revolution and generated diverse opportunities for young people to learn a specialised skill.  A Silk Throwster would spin the silk to make it ready for the weaving process.

There are some similarly-old apprenticeships that continue on today. Those such as Carpenter, Baker, Tailor and Jeweller we can all recognise but also:

  • Printer’s Devil

Printers’ apprentices acquired the nickname “devil” from the way the black ink stained their skin during the printing process.  Legendary poet Walt Whitman served as a Printer’s Devil in his youth as were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (USA Founding fathers) and Mark Twain. Nowadays a printing apprenticeship will require less inky fingers and more skills in controlling digital presses, but it’s still a trade with a formal learning programme.

  • Shipwright

Shipwrights would be based in a shipyard or dockyard where they’d be taught how to design and build ships. The noted mechanical engineer and naval architect Sir Samuel Bentham was an apprentice shipwright as was a chap called Leonard Peskett OBE, who designed the world’s biggest steamship cruise liner (RMS Lusitania). An ancient trade, it continues to this day with initiatives from The Worshipful Company of Shipwrights and the British Marine Federation, amongst others.


Technological Change

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, apprenticeships began to change. The advent of new trades and the spirit of entrepreneurialism called for more flexibility in the apprenticeship system.  Legal rulings gradually chipped away at the Statute of Apprentices until compulsory apprenticeship was abolished in 1814.

However, whether within the new manufacturing trades or the older traditional trades, there were still requirements to bring on new skilled workers trained by older ‘masters’ and so the apprenticeship system continued, albeit with less direct ‘servitude’ and in a more bureaucratic way.

In the period starting from around the mid-1960s to the 1970s, there was a large expansion in further education opportunities with many new universities, polytechnics and colleges opening. With this greater emphasis on FE and what was sometimes cynically referred to as ‘the paper chase’, the number of young people entering traditional work-placed learning gradually declined up to the early 1980s.

Despite this decline it should be noted that three broad business sectors continued offering them throughout these years and were heavily over-subscribed as well. Traditional craft industries such as jewellers, ceramicists, sculptors, furniture makers, gold and silversmiths for example retained their ancient learning processes. Heavy manufacturing, although declining, still required new welders, boilermakers, ship builders, mechanists and toolmakers. And most successful of all were the high technology / high skilled professions (aerospace engineers, nuclear power technicians, chemists, telecoms and electronics etc.) which provided structured four- to five-year programmes of practical experience combined with academic study at technical colleges.

Resurgence from mid-1980s

Recognising something had gone amiss and looking enviously at the economic powerhouse of Germany, which had maintained its ancient system of ‘Lehrlings’ (apprentices), ‘Ausbildungsberufe’ (trades) and ‘Berufsschulen’ (vocational schools), the government of the day introduced National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) in 1986.

Take-up was slow as NVQs struggled to gain acceptance with employers so in 1994 the Government introduced ‘the Modern Apprenticeship’, with each one defined by its own 'apprenticeship framework' which laid out how apprenticeships were taught and managed. These frameworks were overseen by the Sector Skills Council and initially counted over 150 in total.

In the following years the number expanded considerably, drawing in more providers outside of the traditional manufacturing and guilds-based sectors and by 2009 the list had expanded to 190. Although there were now more options to choose from (there were a total of 210 in November 2014) there was some concern from various bodies and employers groups that there were gaps in the supply and that some did not adequately meet the needs of a modern economy, so following the Richards Review of 2012 and a change in funding arrangements it was then planned that the so-called Apprenticeship Standards would replace all frameworks by 2017.

From 1996 to 2001, the number of apprenticeship starts more than doubled, going from approx. 75,000 a year to 170,000, where they levelled off until another growth spurt from 2007 (205,000) to 2010 (280,000).

Modern Day Apprentices

Recent years have seen an acceleration in take-up and provision of apprenticeships, partly as a result of government-led initiatives prompted by economic necessity as the world becomes more competitive, but also because of the changes in tertiary education supply (the massive rise in university fees being paramount here).

In 2010/11 the number of apprenticeship starts leapt to 450,000, in 2011-12 it was 520,600, and in 2012/13 it was 510,200. The most recent data we have (which is not yet fully audited) shows there has been a fall to 432,400 apprenticeship starts.

Apprenticeship Starts from 1950 to Present

The Changing Profile of Apprentices – Age

As well as the significant expansion in numbers there has also been a change in the profile of the modern apprentice in recent years. Firstly, there is a much higher proportion of apprenticeship starters over 25 years of age (45% in 2012/13 compared with 18% in 2009/10).
NB – Please note that the statistics that follow are for England unless otherwise stated, however, the conclusions drawn reflect much the same effect across the whole of the UK.

The number of apprenticeship starts for 16-18 yr olds has been broadly static since beginning of century at the 110,000-130,000 per year mark, but the 19-24 year olds demographic has doubled: from c. 70,000 in 2002-03 to 160,000 in 2012-13.

The largest increase has come for apprenticeships for those of 25 years plus. In 2004-05 there were less than 5,000. By 2012-13 there were over 225,000 starters in this age group. Before the 2004/05 academic year, apprenticeships were not available for people over the age of 24.  

Apprenticeship starts by Age 2012/13 (England)

Apprenticeship Starts by Age 2012-2013
Age Number of starts
16 25,000
17 36,000
18 53,000
19-24 165,000
25-34 100,000
35-44 65,000
45-59 60,000
60+ 3,000


BIS Data - More details here:

3,000 over 60s doing apprenticeships! People aged 25-44 accounted for one in three of all apprenticeship starts in 2012/13, up from one in seven in 2009/10.


The Changing Profile of Apprentices – Gender

In the past, the emphasis on work-placed learning for skilled trades in manufacturing and industry had meant that the vast majority of apprentices were males. By academic year 2010/11, the majority of apprenticeship starters were female and by 2012/12 the ratio was 45%m / 55%f.


The Changing Profile of Apprentices – Qualification Level

In England, at present there are 3 levels of apprenticeship – Intermediate, Advanced and Higher. However the Higher Level apprenticeships did not exist before 2006/07. There were 9,800 Higher Level apprenticeship starts in 2012/13.


2009-10                191,000

2012-13                 293,000


­­­­2009-10                  88,000

2012-13                  208,000

  • BIS Data Service

In Scotland and Wales there are slightly different arrangements.

Scotland retained a version of the Modern Apprenticeship system introduced in 1994 and which is now managed by Skills Development Scotland. In 2014 there were approximately 25,000 starts.

In Wales they run what is called The Apprenticeship Programme. The basic set-up is that an employer pays an apprentice’s wages while the regional government will pay for the training element – with support from the European Social Fund. There are three types of Apprenticeships: Foundation Apprenticeship, Apprenticeship, Higher Apprenticeship. More detail can be found at the Careers Wales website. In 2009/10 there were 36,000 starts but reports coming out of the principality suggest there have been cut-backs in 2014


The Changing Profile of Apprentices – Types

As of late 2014 there were approximately 210 different job types of apprentices (defined within Apprenticeship Frameworks) which fall into 11 broad sectors:

Apprenticeship starts by Industry Sector 2012/13 (England)
Sector Starts
Agriculture, Horticulture & Animal Care 7,000
Arts, Media & Publishing 1,000
Business & Law 160,000
Construction & Building 14,000
Education & Training 8,000
Engineering & Manufacturing 66,000
Health & Care Services 123,000
IT and Computing 14,000
Leisure & Tourism 14,000
Retail 101,000
Science & Maths <500


The majority of people starting apprenticeships choose frameworks in the service sectors. Three-quarters of all apprenticeship starts in 2012/13 were in business / management, health and care services and retail. See our article here for more detail:

Top 20 Most Popular Apprenticeship Sectors - 2012-13 (England)
Sector No. of Apprentice Starts
Health & Social Care 81,000
Business Administration 49,000
Management 48,000
Customer Service 45,000
Hospitality & Catering 36,000
Children's Care & Development 26,000
Retail 25,000
Hairdressing 16,000
Industrial Applications 15,000
Engineering 14,000
Construction Skills 14,000
Active Leisure & Learning 12,000
IT & Telecoms 9,000
Vehicle Maintenance & Repair   8,000
Accountancy 8,000
Warehousing & Storage 7,000
Support Teaching in Schools 7,000
Driving Goods Vehicles 6,000
IT User 5,000
Electrotechnical 5,000


As of Autumn 2014, there were a further 70 or so frameworks in development for England and Wales, so the variety of jobs and industry certifications on offer was set to increase. The emphasis for most of these new proposed frameworks is clearly on specialisation, as a quick look at the list shows:

- Activity Leadership – aimed at the UK outdoors sector as well as providing opportunities for development of fitness leaders, coaches and activity leaders.
- Music Business – A Creative and Cultural Skills designed intermediate apprenticeship to widen the pool of potential recruits into the industry
- Technical Theatre: Lighting, Sound & Stage - Lighting Pathway will train as Assistant Lighting Electricians, Board / Console Operators, Followspot Operators or Lighting Maintenance Technicians
- Unmanned Aerial System Operations - a level 3  framework designed to train new entrants in the operation of unmanned aerial systems and allow UAS operators to carry out flight planning, maintain UAS flight control and understand aviation meteorology, operations and health and safety.
- Drinks Dispense Systems – An Intermediate Level Apprenticeship specifically designed for Drinks Dispense Technicians and Maintenance Team Technicians, to develop a standardised, formalised, nationally recognised training programme, ensuring safety throughout the industry.
-Security Systems - designed to provide apprentices with the skills to design, install, commission and maintain electronic security systems such as Intruder Alarms, CCTV, Access Control, and Fire Detection and Alarm Systems.

There is even a proposed framework for Circus Performer (ID# FR02349) although the basic on that one had not been released as we went to pixel.

You can see the full list here:

NOTE: The data we have presented in this section is all about ‘apprenticeship job starts’ and of course not everyone finishes what can be, after all, an intense period of work and learning. The government, via the Skills Funding Council, collects data on success rates and qualifications received and if you are interested you can find that data here:


Government Funding

Current government policy is committed to increasing funding for apprenticeships and creating 250,000 more.

At present, in England, the government pays a proportion of the training costs for apprentices, depending on their age, while the apprentice’s employer will normally cover any remaining training costs.

Typically, the government contributes: 

• 100% of the training costs if the apprentice is aged 16-18.

• 50% of the training costs if the apprentice is aged 19-24.  

• Up to 50% of the training costs if the apprentice is aged over 25.1

Presently, the money for training is routed from the Skills Funding Agency directly to training providers.

Government Funding - £ millions (Financial year - 1 Apr - 31 Mar)

2009-10 = 1,072

2010-11 = 1,202

2011-12 = 1,389

2012-13 = 1,435

2013-14 = 1,566

From September 2014, there is a year-long trial of a different funding method for training and assessment which will give the actual employers and businesses more control and purchasing power. This was one of the recommendations arising out of the 2012 Richards Review which were put into a consultation document: Future of apprenticeships in England: implementation plan.



Important and well-known companies like Rolls-Royce, BMW Group UK, Airbus, KPMG and the like have always been a cornerstone of apprenticeship provision. In the two years from 2011-12, more than 13,000 apprenticeship starts in England & Wales were done in just 62 companies. This has been recognised by the government in its current overhaul of the system and 8 so-called ‘Trailblazer’ companies have been selected to participate in the design of what are called ‘Reformed Apprenticeships’. The companies represent the following sectors; aerospace, automotive, digital industries, electro-technical, energy, financial services, food and drink, and life and industrial sciences.  

Nonetheless, despite the important role of corporations, SMEs still account for the majority of starts and companies less than 49 employees represent approximately half of the total.

Apprenticeship Starts by Employer Size - 2014
Business Size % of Total
1 to 49 employees 41%
50+ 43%
Unknown   16%


The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) report UK Commission’s Employer Perspectives Survey 2012, contains some useful data on employers and businesses use of apprentices - 

Some highlights from the report:

  • In 2012, 15% of all employers offered apprenticeships (though only 9% had staff currently undertaking one). Of employers with 100+ staff, 48% were offering apprenticeships and 39% currently employed at least one apprentice.

    25-99 staff = 30% offer  (20% current)
    10-24 staff = 25% offer (15% current)
    5-9 staff = 15% offer (9% current)

    Of small business, with 2-4 employees, 5% currently employ apprentices, and 10% offer apprenticeships.
  • 74% of businesses offering apprentices offered them to 16-18 year olds and 19-24 year olds in 2012, compared to just 47% offering apprenticeships to those aged 25 and over. Small businesses were less likely to offer apprentices to the 25 and overs; with 41% of those offering apprentices with 2 to 4 employees offering them to those over 25, compared to 58% of those with 100 or more employees. 
  • Almost half (49%) of all employers only offer apprenticeships to new employees recruited specifically as an apprentice. This was higher for employers with 2 to 4 employees (58%) compared to those with over 100 employees (40%). 9% of all employers only offer apprenticeships to existing employees. This was lower for employers with 2 to 4 employees (5%) compared to those with over 100 employees (13%).


Incentives for Employers

Incentives for employers will be changing as well in the next few years. Currently, Apprenticeship policies are devolved and there are different policies targeted for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.


The Apprenticeship Grant for Employers of 16 to 24 year olds (AGE 16-24) pays £1,500 to small businesses (1,000 or fewer employees) that take on a young apprentice, if the firm has not hired an apprentice in the previous twelve months. An employer can claim up to 10 grants, which are paid after the 13 week stage of the apprentice’s appointment in the expectation that the apprentice will then progress into sustained employment.

There are also Apprenticeship Training Agencies (ATAs), organisations which directly employ apprentices. The business hosting the apprentice will operate as the apprentice’s day-to-day workplace and manager. The ATA will coordinate the training provided to the apprentice and will pay any training costs associated with the training. The host employer pays the ATA a fee based on the apprentice’s wage and any training costs. ATAs act as an incentive for small businesses to take on apprentices because they will deal with any additional administration associated with hiring or employing an apprentice.


The Scots use what is called an ‘Employer Recruitment Incentive’ which is channelled through Skills Development Scotland. The main incentive payments for employers to recruit apprentices in Scotland are: 

• £1,500 for 16 to 19 year olds (and targeted young people aged 16-24) undertaking selected Modern Apprenticeships - only available to employers with less than 150 employees. 

• £5,000 incentive payment for recruiting former Remploy workers.

• Adopt an Apprentice, a payment of £2,000 for employing a Modern Apprentice who has been made redundant.


The Small and Micro Business Support Programme offers a £500 payment to businesses with 49 or less employees to recruit an eligible apprentice, providing the business has not recruited an apprentice in the last two years. 

There was also the Young Recruits Programme which offered a wage subsidy of £3,900 to employers of 16-24 year old apprentices living and working in Wales, paid over 52 weeks with £100 instalments for the first 26 weeks and £50 instalments for the following 26 weeks. However, due to budget constraints it has not yet been confirmed if this will be available to new entrants in 2015.

Northern Ireland

Employer Incentive Payments between £250 and £1,500 are available to employers of apprentices in Northern Ireland depending on the complexity and level of the apprenticeship undertaken.



So this was situation as of 2014 but policy is very fluid and new initiatives are being announced at a regular pace as apprenticeships become more important to all political parties as a way out of the recession and to keep Britain competitive in the world.

Apprenticeships have long been the pathway of choice for enterprising and ambitious young people.  Many of the eminent tradesmen and women of our times are proud to support the apprenticeship system and to have once been an apprentice themselves.

Apprenticeships have come a long way, and they’re continuing to grow and diversify. They’re now widely regarded as a smart alternative to an academic degree if you’re choosing to go into a field that requires hands-on workplace experience.  Many apprenticeships have changed to combine learning-on-the-job with classroom study, offering the best of both worlds.  If you look around at the world we live in today, from architecture, arts, culture and design to administration, trade and construction, you’ll see the legacy of apprentices from throughout the ages.  So, if you’re considering apprenticeship as a means to entry into your industry, you’re part of a long and exciting tradition. 


FAMOUS APPRENTICES - Modern Examples of Success

Many influential, high-achieving public figures began their careers as apprentices.  Here are some modern examples of success:

  • Former long-serving Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson was an apprentice in in Glasgow. He is on record as crediting his time as an apprentice years as the basis for his success later in life.
  • Ross Brawn, Formula One Team Principal learned his trade as a tools mechanist apprentice.
  • Entrepreneur John Caudwell started his business career as an apprentice at Michelin and worked for several years there as an engineering foreman while gaining an HNC in mechanical engineering.  In 2012, Forbes estimated Caudwell's net worth at $2.6 billion.
  • Celebrity gardening expert Alan Titchmarsh left school at 15 and took up an apprenticeship with his local council.
  • Alexander McQueen left Rokeby School in Stratford with just one O-Level – in art – but went on to serve an apprenticeship with Anderson & Sheppard, a traditional Savile Row tailor, and became one of Britain’s most celebrated fashion designers.
  • Celebrity chefs Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver both began their careers as catering apprentices. Also, Clare Smyth, who is the first and only woman to run a 3 star Michelin restaurant, did her NVQ in catering at Highbury College in Portsmouth while apprenticing at various places.
  • Laurence Graff, billionaire founder Graff Diamonds was an apprentice jeweller in Hatton Garden, London. He’s worth an estimated £3billion now. Not bad!


Data Sources and Further Information 



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