Education reform is at the heart of the prime minister’s social mobility agenda. The stated intention of policies such as the expansion of grammar schools and the creation of opportunity areas, is to level the playing field for all.
However, in the recipe to improve educational outcomes for pupils from all backgrounds, the main ingredient is excellent teaching.
The need for great teachers to help students overcome their challenges is widely recognised.
The charity Teach First has been in operation in England for more than a decade now, and seeks to fill teaching roles in disadvantaged areas with high-achieving graduates. The model is being replicated across other sectors, including police, prisons and social work.
While public-sector employers are right in their assertion that the key to delivering better services, is securing the right workforce, the danger is that graduates with high marks from good universities become the silver bullet to all the big challenges facing public services, rather than one important component.
Value for money questioned
In a report published today, Reform argues that before such graduate programmes are expanded, the extent to which they deliver value for money needs to be seriously considered.
Teach First accounts for 7 per cent of entrants, but 11 per cent of costs. If all secondary teachers were trained through Teach First, costs would go up by 46 per cent.
Despite indications that Teach First graduates are both valued by their employers and have some positive impact on pupils, such expansion is not an option in the current fiscal environment.
Schools’ real-terms budgets are decreasing by around 8 per cent per pupil over this parliament, and the higher costs of Teach First training fall on schools as well as Department for Education.
For a serious social mobility agenda to succeed, it will therefore be vital to both identify which components of Teach First offer best value for money, as well as other, more affordable, ways of training teachers.
Apprenticeships could be the answer
It was recently confirmed that most schools will be included in the public-sector apprenticeship target, which dedicates 2.3 per cent of public-sector jobs to apprentices.
This means that schools are going to be expected to deliver pathways for young people, who instead of going to university are interested in practical, vocational training in the education sector. Understandably, this may seem like a daunting task.
Last year, Ofsted concluded that the best apprenticeships are found in sectors with longstanding experience of providing them. They also found that many employers struggled to attract applicants with a sufficient range of skills, mainly owing to a low volume of applications.
Effective apprenticeship provision is therefore going to require sustained focus from schools.
In the autumn, an apprenticeship route to level 3 qualifications for teaching assistants was signed off, and the intention is to expand it to qualified teacher status (QTS) in the near future.
If schools take this opportunity to develop high-quality practical pathways to teaching, they may be awarded with passionate young people in their schools, at a lower cost than current training. They will also have greater influence on the kind of training they think is most important.
One of many routes
As with Teach First, apprenticeship pathways will only be one of many routes into teaching, requiring a holistic perspective on the changing needs of the whole system.
Apprenticeships also have a larger potential to change the education landscape. The pursuit of high academic achievers feeds into a tendency that the UK needs to be wary of. Within the past five years, nursing has been converted into a degree occupation, but so far, any added skills appear to be underutilised.
The College of Policing is proposing a number of new routes into policing. However, they all revolve around either having or gaining degree-level qualifications.
In 2016, the World Economic Forum pointed out that the UK has a relatively high level of "over-education", recommending that alternative education paths be provided for and recognised.
Narrow, graduate-only paths to employment are in no one’s interest. They create wrong education spending priorities, and can cause lower job satisfaction.
Moreover, it may create a workforce with less diverse backgrounds, to the well-evidenced disadvantage of organisations.
Given the complexity of the challenges that most schools face – a battle to both overcome the attainment gap and to recruit the teachers that will help them do so, all within restrained budgets – they should thoughtfully embrace the opportunities that apprentices will bring with them.
Emilie Sundorph is a researcher at Reform. The report, Work in Progress: towards a leaner, smarter public-sector workforce, is available at www.reform.uk