Sunday, 1 October 2017

Teaching Apprenticeships - a last desperate attempt to solve our recruitment and retention crisis on the cheap.

I have read with dismay the recent news coverage of the teaching apprenticeships in England. Whilst it is welcome to hear that full Qualified Teacher Status will continue to be the domain of degree holding applicants, this is by no means enough to satisfy I or many of my colleagues with this erosion of our professional status.

Apprenticeships are a great route for many things. An old friend of mine trained to be an electrician this way - he spent 4 days a week apprenticed to a qualified electrician, and then one day a week in college learning the technical aspects of his trade. When he struggled with some of the maths he would come to me and I would give him a little extra help and support. He grew up to be an excellent electrician, owns his own company and now employs other electricians and apprenticeships. This worked for him because he could learn as much from watching and helping an electrician do their job as he could from the classroom; because the time scale was relatively short; and because he hadn't been particularly enamoured with school and was therefore very reluctant to commit to continue with full-time education.

None of these states can be applied to teaching, or to the proposed teaching apprenticeship. There are so many things about being a teaching that you cannot learn from watching teachers. Peer observation is important for teachers, but to even know what you are looking for takes knowledge and understanding that needs input first. The amount of technical input needed to be successful in the classroom at huge. Remember this is at a time when people question how much a full time PGCE or a BAEd imparts the necessary knowledge for the classroom. This is when the Institute for Teaching is planning for an examined two year training programme for teachers because it believes in the need for further training and rigour. This is a time when everyone with an interest in developing anything in education from subject specific pedagogy to overall classroom management bemoans the lack of time given to focus specifically on their 'thing' during training. You can't learn these things just by watching the handful of teachers you might have contact with whilst being apprenticed at a school. You need access to research, regular reading and development tasks, and access to people learned in not just what works for them, but with the experience of having supported hundreds upon hundreds of people entering the profession.

Now you could do all of these things on a teaching apprenticeship, but they would take time. A lot of time. The length of a degree level apprenticeship is up to 6 years. 6 YEARS!! In a profession where 20% of new teachers leave after 2 years, and only about ⅔ last 7. This timescale for training an apprentice in teaching is staggeringly long. I cant see too many schools being able to commit to a 6 year training programme for apprentices. I mean, 7 years is only about the average length of time that a fully qualified teacher will spend in a school, never mind someone training to be fully qualified. Indeed, it would be difficult to see how a school with many apprentices would be able to mentor them through the process without significant changing to the supporting staff between the start and end of the apprenticeship.

Probably the second biggest issue I have with the whole idea though is that teachers are supposed to be the front-line in inspiring a continuation of education. Whilst I can see some value in having people in schools that can reassure pupils that vocational routes can lead to success, I have this quite strong feeling that the people working with youngsters in the classroom should be clear role models of the success of academia. While I sympathise with those people that are desperate to work with young people but for reasons in their own academic history weren't able to go to university, I don't see that as adequate reason to give the message to young people that there are 'workarounds' for everything if you end up not doing well in the classroom. There are other routes to securing degrees whilst working, from Open University, part-time degrees or night classes. And yes I know some will make the argument that not everyone can afford these, or indeed will ever be able to afford to pay for a degree, but I see this as an argument for not charging fees for education related degrees, or for providing loans for an undergrad degree that can truly cover for the expenses of single parents or others with more responsibility than the typical undergrad. Ultimately it might be that not everyone that wants to can teach. I suspect that not everyone who wants to be an astronaut achieves that dream either, or a lawyer, or a doctor. The fact that we don't perhaps have as many problems recruiting astronauts or lawyers as we do teachers doesn't mean we need to open up routes into teaching that aren't suitable, it means we need to make those routes that are suitable more attractive. As my friend and much admired professional colleague Mark McCourt often proclaims, teachers should be towering intellects capable of inspiring pupils with the joy and fulfilment that comes from lifelong dedication to learning and academia. I can't see how someone who couldn't get themselves too and through university can lay claim to this, however harsh this sounds.

I said that the idea of having teachers in classrooms that ultimately weren't successful in classrooms was my second biggest issue with the idea. My biggest is one that is conspicuous by its absence - the notion of this adding value to the profession. I read articles where politicians claim that this won't make the profession worse or devalue it in any way; I don't read the same people claiming that this is a step-forward for teaching. There is a simple reason for this of course; because it isn't. If it was, we would have people making the argument for degree apprentice lawyers, or doctors, or astronauts. And we don't. Some may argue it is because of how new this level of apprenticeship is, but I can't see it ever being something that those professions clamour for. Indeed a quick search of degree apprenticeships available would seem to confirm that the majority available are in those technical and scientific areas that require the much more specific technical knowledge that this model can provide, certain careers in engineering, surveying etc. And whilst I am certainly not saying that teaching is better than these areas, I am saying that we want different things from our teachers than we do our engineers; a different type of knowledge, different skills. Our engineers need a very technical set of knowledge and skills directly related to their field, teachers need a myriad and multitude of overlapping skills and understanding to fulfil the roles of knowledge developer, pastoral carer, life enricher and everyday role model that are required in schools.

I don't think there are many teachers our there that don't see this move from government for what it is, and what I said in the title of this post, a last desperate attempt to ensure our schools have enough teachers without spending the money it would take to actually do this properly. With the minimum wage of a first year apprentice being £3.50 an hour this means schools could feasibly get a teacher in the classroom 4 days a week for as little as £4427.50 in wages, assuming apprentices would get paid for the same 1265 hours of directed time that is still commonplace in many schools. Of course some schools may offer more than the minimum wage, but in reality this is likely to be just so they don't lose any money in the apprenticeship levy - I can completely understand schools taking the attitude, "we have to spend this money on apprentices so we will pay ours a little more". I suspect though that even this will be unlikely - schools will probably just try and secure more apprentices and only resort to paying more if they are facing losing the money anyway. What then happens to these apprentices once they qualify and become more expensive is of course a different matter - as a cash-strapped school will I employ one of the apprentices I just trained but will now cost me a whole load more money, or will I just let them go at the end of their apprenticeship and take on a new apprentice? I have already seen this happen time and time again with apprentices in the back office or site team, and I have no reason to believe that some school leaders wouldn't behave in the same way with apprentice teachers.

If this government really wants to get more teachers in the classroom, and make sure those teachers are of sufficient quality and qualification background to do the job, then I suggest it remove schools from the apprenticeship levy so that they can invest their money in the training and intellectual stimulation that is crucial in retaining high quality teachers, whilst simultaneously investing real time, effort and funds into making teaching the really attractive graduate profession that it could and should be by investing in ITT, raising wages, and securing a guarantee for meaningful CPD throughout a teacher's career. Provide the sector with the money and time it needs to reduce teacher workload, address the issues with our assessment and accountability systems, and ensure that a visit from Ofsted doesn't mean the end of a career. Maybe then we will have a truly attractive graduate level profession that people strive to enter and that will make it worth getting that degree for.

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