Apprenticeships: Competence or Competency?

Tom Cheek, Apprenticeship Lead at the Science Council

There has been some interesting work and debate on the correct use of ‘competence’ and ‘competency’ when it is considered in the context of learning and curriculum modelling.  In this blog we look at the key observations made, the debates that can be had and how this may relate to vocational education including apprenticeships.

Let’s initially look at the features and implications of competence over competency (Smith 1996, 2005):

Competence (plural being competences) has by some groups been defined as:

  • ‘the ability to do a particular activity to a prescribed standard’;
  • ‘is concerned with what people can do rather than what they know’; and
  • ‘is a measure of what someone can do at a particular point in time’

Implications of this include:

  • ‘It describes what someone can do. It does not describe the learning process which the individual has undergone’
  • ‘There must be clearly defined and widely accessible standards through which performance is measured and accredited’
  • ‘Competence and the plural (competences) are broad capacities’

Competency (plural being competencies) has been defined as:

  • ‘Narrower, more atomistic abilities and episodes’, and
  • ‘series of discrete activities that people possess the necessary skills, knowledge and understanding to engage in effectively’

Implications of this include:

  • Relates to evaluation of activities
  • Implicates that behaviour can be ‘objectively and mechanistically measured’
  • Can result in ‘shopping lists’ such as NVQ competency assessments where the focus is on ‘the parts rather than the whole’

When we look at these observations through the lens of apprenticeship delivery, it could be reasoned that frameworks with qualifications such as NVQ Diplomas had a focused and potentially narrow nature to the provision that aligned with a competency (plural competencies) approach.  This reasoning could be extended to justify the reforms to Apprenticeship Standards that has the potential for a development of a curriculum that is no longer tied to a ‘tick box’ ongoing assessment, but instead looks to develop a broader use of knowledge, skills and behaviours that is measured synoptically at the end of the learning experience, challenging the apprentice to be able to demonstrate their full range of abilities.

When reflecting upon delivery of frameworks, that at their heart contained primary qualifications, training providers could easily fall into a provision where the curriculum was built entirely around the ‘shopping list’ of particular abilities or activities (competencies), with an assessment methodology that was blinkered to the approach of ticking off assessments piece by piece, signing off lists to a point of completion that ultimately resulted in the learner passing the apprenticeship.  This could result in a one-dimensional approach to learning where the higher order learning is neglected.

It is worth considering the opportunity that the apprenticeship reforms provides with the move from frameworks to standards, including the debate of the removal of qualifications.  It could be argued that the removal of qualifications risks the sufficiency of learning in both underpinning

knowledge and skills, with the concern that specific principles and a level of theory may be missed or covered insufficiently.

This could be countered with the proposal that by removing the qualifications (and its potentially narrow and competency focus), leads to the potential of a liberated curriculum that can offer a far broader learning experience that allows an apprentice to develop knowledge, skills and behaviours that can adapt to their environment and circumstance.

This could be countered again with the suggestion that an apprenticeship could best serve the apprentice, the employer and industry if it takes the best of both and offers a qualification for on-programme learning and an independent end point assessment of the apprentices broad knowledge, skills and behaviours.  The debate could continue further with the concern that by including a qualification there is the temptation to lean too heavily against the reassurance and structure that the qualification offers in terms of learning outcomes and assessment criteria, moving back towards a ‘shopping list’ and missing the opportunity for a richer, exploratory and reflective learning experience.

With this nod to end point assessments, it highlights the importance of the development of assessment plans for standards where the EPA methods and activities are created with the same perspective of a broad and flexible approach (rather than a tick list of competencies).  This can allow the learner the best opportunity to showcase their competence and their highly developed capabilities.

Competence or competency?

It seems highly relevant to the discussions and debates being had with the development of apprenticeship standards.  How quality of learning is measured?  What curriculum offering provides the best learning experience?  What characteristics are required within apprenticeships that meets the needs of employers and more broadly the industry as a whole?  There is no ‘standard’ standard and therefore trailblazer groups can play a significant role in identifying and representing their sectors needs at the point of the development of the apprenticeship and we as a representation of professional registrations can influence and support those developments.

As a training provider recently mentioned in a discussion, standards are the ‘new currency’ and we therefore need to engage with them closely to influence future developments positively.


Smith, M. K. (1996, 2005) ‘Competence and competencies’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [].

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