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One year on, are apprenticeships failing to open up the profession?

Alford dyett by aaron hargreaves

Architecture’s new apprenticeships set out to widen access to the profession. But funding issues have sparked fears that placements are not going where they are needed most. Ella Jessel reports

The biggest hope pinned on the new architecture apprenticeships when they were introduced a year ago was that this alternative route to qualification would open up access to the profession. But while the ‘earn and learn’ initiative has been embraced by the industry, on the principal aim of widening the catchment net at the point of entry there has so far been little progress.

Only one of the universities that took up the scheme is currently offering apprenticeships at the equivalent of the RIBA Part 1 stage (Apprenticeship Level 6). Instead, most are offering the courses at a level equivalent to Part 2 or 3 (Apprenticeship Level 7) and require applicants to hold an architecture degree already.

Among those who worked with the original ‘trailblazer group’ – the 20 practices led by Foster + Partners that launched apprenticeships last year – this is cause for concern. And RIBA head of education David Gloster agrees architecture apprenticeships are not being offered at the point they are most needed. 

Apprentice diagram

Apprentice diagram

‘If part of the impetus is to produce a more even demographic in [architecture] schools, it has to happen at undergraduate level,’ he says. ‘There is a social programme behind this and it’s important the government understands this.’

Calls for greater diversity in the profession are growing stronger. According to the most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics, the sector is 93.7 per cent white and, with an architecture education costing more than £100,000, there are fears the profession is increasingly the preserve of a moneyed elite. 

As the apprenticeship initiative nears its first birthday, what are the issues preventing degree-level apprenticeships getting off the ground? And what is being done to tackle the problem?  

The only way you can make a social change is by widening the access to the profession 

Last September, five universities became the first to offer architecture apprenticeships: London South Bank University (LSBU), De Montfort, Northumbria, Oxford Brookes, and Portsmouth. At least seven architecture schools are also in the process of setting up courses, while Manchester School of Architecture (MSA) is planning to launch its apprenticeships in January 2020, and Bath and Cambridge universities in September that year.

But none of these is proposing to launch the Level 6 (see above) degree-level ‘architectural assistant’ apprenticeships. LSBU remains the only university offering this option. 

Instead, most architecture schools have opted to use the government funding, capped at £21,000 for both levels, to offer Level 7 apprenticeships over four years. The funding does not stretch so easily for Level 6, which, being the degree equivalent, can take up to five years to study part-time.

Gloster says the majority of schools have decided it is ‘uneconomical’ to run the Level 6 apprenticeships. To get over this financial hurdle, LSBU has effectively condensed its five-year part-time Part 1 degree into a four year Level 6 apprenticeship. 

Gabriel pavlides by aaron hargreaves

Gabriel pavlides by aaron hargreaves

Source: Aaron Hargreaves

Gabriel Pavlides

The current difficulties stem partly from the complex way the new apprenticeship route is funded. The government requires firms with wage bills of more than £3 million a year to pay a tax equivalent to 0.5 per cent of their wage bill into the Apprenticeship Levy. Foster + Partners alone pays about £250,000 into it each year. Firms can then use the cash to pay for apprenticeships they run. 

Smaller architecture practices, which don’t pay the levy, have to pay 5 per cent towards the cost of training their apprentices directly to the university providing the training. The government pays the remaining 95 per cent.

Employers must also pay the apprentices’ salaries at a rate decided by each practice. At Foster’s, the starting salary for a Level 7 apprentice is £24,000. Universities encourage practices to follow the RIBA’s recommendations on paying a living wage. 

The trailblazer group originally pushed for the maximum amount of government funding available to universities: £27,000. But the Institute for Apprentices and Technical Education (IFATE), the body which approves standards, decided on £21,000. 

As an apprentice, I feel like they are investing in me. I’m going out to site more than other Part 1s and getting exposed to industry

This created a funding gap, which is a ‘big issue’ according to Lisa Mcfarlane a director at Manchester-based Seven Architecture. Mcfarlane, who is one of the trailblazer group’s sub-leads for the Level 6 apprenticeship programme, says: ‘Everyone on the trailblazer team was committed to making apprenticeships accessible to everyone and the way to do that is through Level 6. The only way you can make a social change is by widening the access to the profession.’ 

Mcfarlane says if architecture schools continue to struggle with the existing funding bands, the group will present this to IFATE in 2022 when the apprenticeship standard comes up for review. ‘[Initially] we couldn’t negotiate because we didn’t have evidence. Now we have evidence there is a funding gap, [which we can present to IFATE] if in two years’ time we find it is still a stumbling block to widening the Level 6 offer.’

For its part, IFATE says its funding band levels were informed by ‘rigorous evidence-gathering and consultation processes’. A spokesperson adds that it hopes to support ‘further engagement’ as more employers and training providers become involved. 

However, the profession is already looking for answers. Lilly Kudic, head of architecture at LSBU, recalls that the university negotiated costs with the practices in the trailblazer group to cover the shortfall for its inaugural cohort of 14. Practices with apprentices at LSBU, including Scott Brownrigg and 3DReid pay £1,500 a year per apprentice. 

Bola agiri by aaron hargreaves

Bola agiri by aaron hargreaves

Source: Aaron Hargreaves

Bola Agiri

Charlotte Sword, Foster + Partners’ head of HR, who chaired the trailblazer group, says only a couple of universities they were in discussion with were thinking of offering Level 6, but notes that the ARB said there had recently been more interest in it. 

She adds: ‘We think Level 6 is important and it’s something we need to work on more aggressively next year. I don’t think it’s insurmountable.’

Mcfarlane says other issues affect Level 6, such as the complexity of mapping out the course structure, which requires approval by the RIBA and Architects Registration Board. Level 7 courses are easier, as many architecture schools are able to adapt the structure of their existing part-time MArch courses to suit the Level 7 model.

Many Level 7s have been accredited by the RIBA, which is treating the apprenticeships as new routes through existing courses, rather than an entirely new process of validation. The ARB prescription [accreditation], however, is proving a little more challenging. Gloster explains that, as a statutory body, the ARB is naturally ‘slightly more cautious’. Kudic also points out that the regulatory body did not have a board for a period of time this year which, she says, contributed to the delay in processing apprenticeship courses. 

The ARB denies this, telling the AJ that it had ‘prepared carefully’ for any gap between the change in legislation and the appointment of its new board and that it was able to continue operations while appointments were taking place.

It adds that, when considering a prescription request from an architecture school, it had to ‘strike a careful balance’ between progressing as quickly as possible and ensuring due diligence took place.

However, according to one university staff member whose architecture department is struggling to build its apprenticeship course, achieving prescription might not be helped by schools’ ‘pick and mix’ approach. The academic, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that departments are relying on ‘vague’ material from IFATE, resulting in one apprenticeship with a module map so convoluted it was almost impossible to understand. ‘There is complete variation on how they [schools] are going to deliver the apprenticeships up and down the country’, the academic says.

Concerns over the readiness of the apprenticeship option dissuaded Patrick Millar, an architectural assistant at BDP, from applying. The 23-year-old said his practice suggested he apply for an apprenticeship at Oxford Brookes but declined as he did not want to be part of a ‘guinea pig’ year.

Katarzyna gryszkiewicz by aaron hargreaves

Katarzyna gryszkiewicz by aaron hargreaves

Source: Aaron Hargreaves

Katarzyna Gryszkiewicz

However, Millar also says he thinks apprenticeships are positive as an affordable way into architecture that could help the profession’s ‘pale, male and stale’ problem. ‘Anything that gets more people involved, from all walks of life, is a big plus,’ he says.

Like LSBU, many of the providers, notably Northumbria and UWE (whose scheme begins next month), have structured their apprenticeships around existing part-time MA courses. This usually results in the ‘day-release’ format, involving one or two days a week at university and the rest of the week in practice.

The alternative is the ‘block release’ model, which involves longer, more intensive periods of study. This model is preferred by Foster + Partners, which last year had four architect apprentices, all studying via block release at Oxford Brookes.

‘We don’t have a part-time taught masters course so, instead of changing it to fit, we designed from the ground up a fully tailored programme,’ says Karl Kjelstrup-Johnson, programme lead for Oxford Brookes’ Level 7. 

Apprenticeships are a brilliant idea but the idea needs to be kicked up a step

‘The Brookes model is not that you step out of academia and into practice; it’s about getting into the mindset that you’re trying to weave and connect the two together.’

One of his students, 24-year-old Billy Taylor, who is working with contractor Mulalley & Co’s in-house architecture team, said the structure enabled him to devote equal attention to both practice and academic study. 

He says: ‘During Part 1 there were times when I found the distance between what we were learning at university and what we were doing in practice too much. The Oxford Brookes course has begun to reduce this gap, which I think many others have previously seen as a problem.’

Max Collins is also among the first cohort of Oxford Brookes’ Level 7s. He says while he really enjoyed doing his Part 1, if an apprenticeship had been available, he would have gone straight down that route.

Working at Scott Brownrigg’s Guildford office has broadened his horizons very quickly, Collins says. ‘As an apprentice, I feel like they are investing in me. I’m going out to site more than other Part 1s and getting exposed to industry.’

However, Collins says he hopes the apprenticeship model will be rolled out across Level 6 soon. He says: ‘There is nothing at the moment, and I think there needs to be more a focus on the bridge [from A-levels to Part 1]. Apprenticeships are a brilliant idea but the idea needs to be kicked up a step.’

In launching architecture apprenticeships so quickly, the trailblazer group has shown the will is there to make the new route a genuine alternative. The challenge now is to impress on the government that, as it stands, the route’s aim of making architecture a profession for all is not yet being delivered. As Gloster says: ‘We need to say: look, it isn’t quite doing what you wanted it to do.’


Oluwaseyi sobogun

Oluwaseyi Sobogun, architect apprentice at PRP and London South Bank University

I had been at PRP for one year completing my Part 1 year-out, and was in the process of planning my next step when the opportunity of an apprenticeship was proposed. The apprenticeship has given me the chance to stay with my current employer and work towards becoming an architect without added debt. At the end of my three-and-a-half-year apprenticeship, I will be able to register as an architect. 

Being an apprentice is much harder than being a normal architecture student – but I would still choose this route

I am privileged to be one of the first involved in the scheme. However, there are challenges to this approach, as with any new untried venture. At LSBU, full-time students, part-time students and apprentices are all combined in the same design studio, with the same projects and deadlines.

Although this has the benefit of inclusion, it can also be a burden. A negative aspect has been trying to produce the same quality of work that is expected of the full-time master’s students in a reduced amount of time. It has been difficult to reach the standard required by the tutors. Being an apprentice is much harder than being a normal architecture student, which is hard enough. But I would still choose the apprenticeship route. The positives far outweigh the negatives.



Readers' comments (2)

  • Regarding the lack of provision for practice based routes to level 6 (Part 1) graduation, there is an alternative with RIBA Studio: https://www.architecture.com/education-cpd-and-careers/studying-architecture/riba-studio
    It’s also worth noting that RIBA Studio also offers level 7 (part 2)

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  • Re. apprenticeships. At least there are options in GB. In Northern Ireland
    neither of the two universities offer part-time courses. If they did we would certainly offer places.
    Paul Millar
    Hamilton Architects

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