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Are ‘earn and learn’ apprenticeships the future for architectural education?

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In September the first cohort of architecture apprentices will embark on the new route into the profession. Colin Marrs reports

‘Game-changer’ was the term tweeted by David Ayre of Ayre Chamberlain Gaunt when news broke of the launch of the new architecture apprenticeship, and his evident excitement has been echoed by many others in the profession. 

Penoyre & Prasad partner Suzi Winstanley believes this ‘new-old revolution’ could become a very real alternative to the usual, long-winded and costly route to qualification through university. ‘Apprenticeships are a brilliant way to bring diversity to the profession,’ she says. ‘A genuine way to earn and learn.’

And Karl R Kjelstrup-Johnson, programme lead for architectural apprenticeships at Oxford Brookes University, describes the move as a ‘paradigm shift in architectural education’. There are, of course, other educational models where students spend time embedded in practice as they learn, such as the London School of Architecture’s Part 2 courses, which offer three days a week in practice, and the University of Sheffield’s collaborative practice, which is based around a four-day working week.  

However, the new apprenticeship is completely different. The route to its introduction began in September 2016, when the government gained Royal Assent for its new apprenticeship levy. From April 2017, firms with wage bills of more than £3 million a year were charged 0.5 per cent of their total wage bill to fund new apprenticeships. Firms can now apply for funding to pay for the training and assessment of apprenticeships. Smaller firms, which don’t pay the levy, are eligible for grants of 90 per cent of their assessed funding needs.

The looming introduction of the levy focused the minds of the profession. It represented a new financial burden, certainly. But, as Charlotte Sword, human resources director at Foster + Partners, notes, the profession also spotted an opportunity. She says: ‘It wasn’t just about how we got a benefit from the money we were going to be paying; it was about what it would provide in terms of inclusion and diversity.’

Despite the work done by organisations such as the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust with specific parts of the community, the profession still faces a problem recruiting people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Sword says: ‘Diversity within the profession is restricted, primarily because the architecture course is so long and you have the fees and costs associated with that. It could be perceived that you had to have a certain wealth status in order to enter.’

Diversity within the profession is restricted, primarily because the architecture course is so long

The rules of the levy mean any industry scheme has to be organised by employers. Not only did this rule out bodies such as the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust from leading the development of architectural apprenticeships, it also meant that professional bodies RIBA and the ARB had to take a back seat. Joanna Parry, head of professional education at the RIBA, says: ‘It was a strange position for the RIBA to be in. Although we are validators of existing professional qualifications, we weren’t able to lead this process.’

However, the RIBA and ARB both helped provide a forum for initial discussions between a group of 20 practices (listed below). This ‘trailblazer group’ first met in October 2016, with Foster + Partners taking the lead. From the outset, the group was clear that the apprenticeship should result in the awarding of recognised professional qualifications, rather than creating a new and separate professional standard.

‘We have ended up with an apprenticeship that allows apprentices to gain Part 1, 2 and 3 qualifications,’ says Peter Garstecki, associate architect at Fosters. ‘We could have just created an apprenticeship certificate but, if we had, students wouldn’t be able to register with the ARB as architects. That is why we needed to make sure the standards were aligned with RIBA and ARB requirements.’

But the process of aligning those requirements with the requirements of the government’s Institute for Apprenticeships (IFA), which sets standards for apprenticeships across all professions, was not plain sailing. The IFA initially resisted the idea of integrating its final assessment with Part 3 assessment. However, conversations with the trailblazer group ended up with the IFA amending its policies to avoid apprentices having to sit two separate exams.

Matthew Streets, managing partner at Fosters, says: ‘It was an incredibly mature approach. We explained why we had a problem and, once they understood it, together we managed to find a solution that fitted with what the government was trying to do and met the aspirations of this wide group of people.’

In an intense period of collaboration, the trailblazer group worked to get a standard ready in time for the start of the September 2018 academic year, when the first recruits will begin their apprenticeships. Individual practices within the group drew up standards (Hawkins\Brown and Lipscomb Jones) and assessment criteria (Scott Brownrigg, Seven, FCBS), which the trailblazer group then consulted on closely to ensure they met the requirements of RIBA, the ARB, the IFA and the schools. In July, the IFA approved the two new apprenticeships that resulted from this work. 

Apprentices on the first, the Architectural Assistant apprenticeship, would gain a Part 1 qualification, and those finishing the second – the Architect apprenticeship – would gain Parts 2 and 3. Completing both apprenticeships will take eight years. ‘It can take an architect up to 10 years to qualify and we wanted to see if there was a way here to condense that a little bit,’ says Sword.

Those embarking on the apprenticeships will earn and learn at the same time, with 80 per cent of apprentices’ time spent in an office and the rest spent on academic learning. Students will pay nothing towards their training, while earning a wage from their practice. The attraction of being paid a wage while learning – the absence of a large student debt – is clear.

Students will pay nothing towards their training, while earning a wage from their practice

However, this is not the only benefit for students and practices, according to Lisa McFarlane, associate director at Seven Architecture. She says: ‘It helps apprentices learn the benefits of the “softer” issues in a professional environment. Dealing with clients on a day-to-day basis for eight years means you are a very professional person at the end of the process.’

The trailblazers also hope there will be cross-fertilisation between the design skills that apprenticeships use in their academic courses and their project work. However, McFarlane admits that combining work and study will present a challenge to some apprentices. She says: ‘A certain type of person will be attracted [to this set-up]. It is obviously not going to be easy and it takes a lot of dedication and the right attitude to work.’

And some have expressed doubts, too, about whether apprentices’ imaginative faculties might be stunted by the programme’s understandably practical basis. Winstanley says: ‘There is a risk that students won’t get to design with abandon, to try and fail and thereby develop their own “voice”. But the best practices today make that space; they are research-led, take risks and experiment. Multiple routes into architecture and a closer interaction between practice and academia are absolutely what is needed right now.’

There is also hope that the apprenticeship scheme will help architects in the regions to retain talent that is currently attracted to larger urban centres. 

Simon Jones, partner at Cornwall-based Lipscomb Jones Architects, says: ‘Until now it has been hard for small practices like ours to offer work experience, due to constraints on resources. 

Until now it has been hard for small practices like ours to offer work experience

‘We were losing a lot of people early on. They were leaving the county to go to university, getting work experience there and not coming back. Hopefully, this scheme will help reverse that trend.’

This September, a number of architecture schools in Leicester, Newcastle, Oxford, Portsmouth and, potentially, a handful in London will be ready to offer places to between 50 and 70 apprentices, according to Garstecki. Another seven schools are expected to be ready for intakes next year but, despite interest from others, the group is not making any predictions about the eventual scale of the new route into the profession.

Nevertheless, Simon Branson, associate at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, is optimistic that the effect will be significant. He says: ‘The thing that strikes me is that with this scheme a fundamental shift happened in education three years ago, and as yet it is almost completely hidden. The more I talk about it, the more I realise what a fundamental shift it is.’

Comment: Amy Allwood, architectural assistant at Scott Brownrigg and a future apprentice

Amy allwood

Amy allwood

I am originally from Essex and completed my Part 1 in architecture at Oxford Brookes. I’d originally planned to do my Parts 2 and 3 through the normal route but, when I heard about the apprenticeship scheme at Oxford, I made my mind up straight away. I wanted to do it. I’d done work experience at Scott Brownrigg before university and I enjoyed the studio environment and culture. So, when I found out they were involved, I contacted them straight away. The apprenticeship would provide me with a great opportunity to work in industry while studying and I hope it could help bring my learning into my work more directly. The fact that there will be no student fees is a bonus but, to be honest, I went for the interview before they said the fees would be paid for. If this wasn’t an option, I would have done the masters and would have paid for it. Doing an apprenticeship is more about the experience – it will benefit my learning and my work; that is the main attraction for me.

The 20 architecture ‘trailblazers group’ practices

  • Foster + Partners (chair)
  • Lipscomb Jones Architects (architectural assistant standard sub-lead)
  • Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (architectural assistant assessment sub-lead)
  • Seven Architecture (architectural assistant assessment sub-lead)
  • Scott Brownrigg (architect assessment sub-lead)
  • Hawkins\Brown (architect standard sub-lead)
  • Pollard Thomas Edwards (architecture apprenticeships guide sub-lead)
  • Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
  • Arup
  • BDP
  • Grimshaw Architects
  • HLM Architects
  • HOK
  • HTA Design
  • Perkins + Will
  • PLP Architecture
  • Purcell
  • Ryder
  • Stanton Williams
  • tp bennett

Readers' comments (4)

  • Richard Saxon

    Its just 60 years since the profession decided that University courses were the only way to enter the profession. At the time it was free for most students and only 2% of school-leavers went to Uni. Now the game is up. Academe has become too detached from practice and the Uni route is unaffordable. Apprenticeships could re-kindle the concept of professionalism and I welcome it.

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  • Clare Richards

    I submitted a comment, but it has not appeared... Clare Richards, ft’worK

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  • What sort of wage is expected to be paid for the apprenticeships?

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  • That was how I became a qualified architect. Scholarship to Brixton School of Building (gone) 3 year Junior course in how to Build. Then working in architects office full time and evening studies at the Regent Street Polytechnic. External Intermediate and final examinations at the RIBA and then registered as an architect and accepted as a member of the RIBA. With my background that was the only way I could do it. All that destroyed in making essential anArchitecture university degree degree in the 1960’s. I protested then. Reality has returned at last. Owen Luder CBE PPRIBA.

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