Teacher apprenticeships – a solution or threat?

23 November 2016 by Alison Ryan
As anyone currently struggling to hold school or household budgets together knows, money talks; key to whether bills can be paid, resources invested in, demands met.
Piggy bank

Following years of funding not meeting schools’ needs, the new apprenticeship levy on schools (see Janet Clark’s blog Is your school ready for the apprenticeship levy?) will be feeling like a 0.5% straw which may break these camels’ backs.

In light of that, it will be hardly surprising if schools profess interest in taking up teacher apprenticeships, as a way to recoup some or all of that levy payment back on training. The worry is that this enthusiasm will be based on an urgent financial imperative rather than on any professional evidence that this route will meet the critical need to increase both recruitment to, and retention in, the profession. 

While understandable, what we (by that ‘we’, I mean all of us who work in education) must ensure is that, if there should be a teacher apprenticeship route, it is robust, of high quality and most importantly, meets the needs of those on that route, as well as those of employers.

So, if we look at the needs of learners, of those who many wish to consider teaching as a career, has there been any evidence that government has gathered to say what those are? Well, as with bursaries, which have been changed yet again, we see little evidence of such reflection or analysis. 

However, that lack of reflection belies the reality of strong research evidence around teacher motivation and longevity, evidence which tells us that workload and professional confidence are key factors in teacher recruitment and retention. How is an apprenticeship route going to solve that? Apprentice teachers will require a large amount of support from their leaders, their mentors, their colleagues, their department heads; yet we have a workforce where 48% have been in the profession less than 10 years, where many are already taking on extra duties, and many are reaching breaking point.

Indeed this gap in middle leadership raises a very troubling question regarding where support for our apprentice teachers is to come from, let alone the support that other trainee, new and early career teachers need and should be able to expect.

At a recent evidence session of the Select Committee, the shortage of teachers in subject areas such as Maths and Science was raised.  There’s no doubt that some see the teacher apprenticeship route as a way to plug the skills gap in maths and science teaching. However, this presumption that this new route is the way to do this (and it is a presumption), goes against evidence which suggests that this gap results, not from the lack of supply of entrants with the relevant skills to the labour market, but because of higher incentives, in terms of pay rewards or prospects, in other sectors. Incentives which look increasingly attractive to those who are juggling high workloads, on teachers’ salaries that have failed to keep track with inflation.

Very few people entering into professional education or training can afford to be carefree around the value and status of the training outcome, particularly with the high costs currently involved in that investment. Reflecting the high pace of change in society, the portability of their learning and the piece of paper earned is also key; it allows people choices and options in their professional lives. It’s vital therefore, that teaching is seen to offer that portability and high quality of qualification. 

Any discussion around a teacher apprenticeship route must include how to ensure that the quality of a teacher apprenticeship route will meet this need. With most high-performing countries investing in a Masters-level teaching profession, quality assured and supported by universities, an apprenticeship route here would need to provide an equal assurance of quality and support, if our students and our pupils are to get the excellent education that they deserve.

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