National Apprenticeship Week – raising the standard

It’s National Apprenticeship Week and UNISON is celebrating the good, while protecting against the bad and the ugly side of apprenticeships

Apprenticeships can be a wonderful route into employment and provide the opportunity for people to earn while they learn.

And with the new government policy designed to encourage apprenticeships, there should be a lot more of them in the next few years.

UNISON champions and protects thousands of public service apprentices and has been vocal about our concern that the government’s rushed approach could create a ‘wild west’ atmosphere and leave young workers vulnerable to unscrupulous employers.

However, the union has also been clear that it supports high-quality apprenticeships and actively endorses employers that sign up to its Apprenticeship Charter standards.

So, with the spotlight on apprentices during National Apprenticeship Week (5-9 March) , it’s a good time to talk to some apprentices and find out what UNISON is doing to support them.


The Apprenticeship Network

At the Borough of Poole council, an innovative network is providing support and training for apprentices. And with a joint approach from UNISON and the employer HR team, it is now being run by apprentices, for apprentices.

Peter Stratford (pictured top with apprentices Nick Hillman and Freya Kendall) was a union learning rep and the young members’ officer at Poole. At a UNISON learning conference, he tells a packed audience that he started as an apprenticeship sceptic: “It made me think of poor Bert White, the exploited apprentice in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist.”

But he also recognised that union involvement could ensure apprenticeships are the positive introduction to the working world they should be.

Peter felt it would be good to provide the apprentices at Poole with a social learning network. Together with the HR team, and support from the Union Learning Fund, they invited 30 apprentices for a training session and lunch.

“But then it was over to them. We always envisaged it being a network run by apprentices for apprentices – so it’s really Freya and Nick that have made it what it is.” 


Freya and Nick’s story

Freya Kendall is 19 years old. She is completing a level 3 business administration apprenticeship focussed on marketing, at Skills and Learning Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole.

Nick Hillman is 24 and is on a level 3 apprenticeship in customer service at the Borough of Poole.

“I went to the first meeting and was encouraged to volunteer and take the idea forward,” says Freya.

“I was initially sceptical because I had a lot on my plate. But I’m passionate about learning, so it seemed like a great opportunity.”

Freya, Nick and another apprentice started meeting regularly. They invited the apprentices back for their first apprentice-organised event.

After some ice breakers and team building training, the apprentices discussed what they would like to do next time.

“And that’s when we hit on wellbeing training”, explains Freya.

Both Freya and Nick were pleased that it was the male apprentices who seemed particularly keen on exploring mental health in the workplace.

Their next session focussed on stress triggers and coping mechanisms, and took the apprentices through the five steps for wellbeing. At the end, apprentices could ask the trainer any questions.

“And it was all the men that went up to speak to her,” remarks Nick.

They have future sessions planned on interview training and CV writing. But socialising is very important too, explains Freya.

“We’re keen for it to provide people with a social network, beyond their department. Lots of the staff at Poole are a bit older than most of the apprentices, so it means we’ve got to know people of a similar age, that are facing similar issues.

“Also it’s somewhere you can seek support and advice, if you’re not always comfortable speaking to your manager.”

Apprentices at Poole now have a support network – thanks to Freya, Nick and the joined-up work of a UNISON activist and a HR team.


UNISON’s Apprenticeship Charter

Southport and Ormskirsk Hospital. UNISON branch secretary John Flannery, pprentice computer services manager in pharmacy Simon Bunting and UNISON assistant general secretary Christina McAnea after the trust signed UNISON’s Apprenticeship Charter last year
Photo: Martin Birchall

Freya and Nick show that good apprenticeships are possible. They are learning on the job, they’re paid the living wage, they are valued and supported by their employer and provided with opportunities to equip them to enter a fulfilling career with confidence.

Unfortunately, many apprentices are not so respected. Unscrupulous employers can exploit apprentices as a cheap labour force.

Because of this, UNISON has created a National Apprenticeship Charter that provides a practical bargaining tool and commits employers to high apprenticeship standards.

The charter outlines the rights of apprentices and responsibilities of employers – including formal training, payment at the rate for the job and a job offer on completion.

UNISON endorses and supports employer apprentice schemes that commit to UNISON’s charter standards.

Southport and Ormskirk NHS Trust and Hartlepool College of Further Education are early adopters and celebrated their signing with managers, apprentices and branch reps.

Find out more about UNISON and apprentices

Download the UNISON Apprenticeship Charter