"Is that normal?" What the Experiences of Apprentices Teach us about Practice and Policy

Lawes, Tanya (2020). "Is that normal?" What the Experiences of Apprentices Teach us about Practice and Policy. EdD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.00011032


This study exposes the absence of apprentice voice in debates about quality, and explains the implications from a theoretical position of learning as a social construct. The early years of the 21st century witnessed a rapid growth in apprenticeships in England, with starts rising from 167,700 in 2002/3 to 375,800 in 2017/18. Ownership of the definition of apprenticeships is a contested matter with successive governments claiming that apprenticeships provide an alternative to university, and a cure for national skills shortages, social inequality and youth unemployment. Quality is conceived and measured using narrow economic- and employment-centred metrics. How apprentices conceive quality and success is largely unknown or ignored. I make the case that it is only by understanding the experiences and views of apprentices that we can start to make any headway into improving the quality of delivery.

I interviewed 33 apprentices to determine what it is like to ‘do’ an apprenticeship and to ‘be’ an apprentice. The ethnographic methodology used champions the apprentices’ points-of-view, and allows me to discuss my findings in the context of theories about knowledge, identity, relationships, choice and power. The first apprentice that I interviewed wanted to know how her experiences compared with those of others, and the phrase, “Is that normal?” became a leitmotif for the study, exposing the myth of a normal apprentice, upon which, much current policy is based.

The original contribution of this thesis is to fill a gap in current knowledge, and provide a new apprentice-centred model to make sense of the apprentice experience. The thesis concludes with a challenge to those who create apprenticeship policy and deliver training, to develop a new and broader set of quality measures. I contend that adopting a more apprentice-centred approach will enhance the value of apprenticeships, and this has significant implications for employment and training.

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