The new teaching apprenticeships have the potential to be more divisive in post-16 than in other sectors of education, due to the sad tension that already exists between academic and vocational interests.
From the moment Justine Greening first suggested this new route, you could see the rush to fall in on the usual battle lines, while some few of us were left standing bewildered in no-man’s land. You couldn’t blame us for not knowing what to think: at first, the same party of government that had proposed minimum degree standards for teaching were advocating a non-graduate alternative.
Now that’s cleared up – teaching remains a graduate profession – it’s hard to see how this route is any different to Schools Direct, or its predecessor the graduate teacher programme. I imagine those ready to be outraged have been silenced with confusion.
Teaching vs training
Under whatever title, it’s great to have routes into teaching that allow you to work while training. I’m sometimes suspicious of those who had their lives so organised that they stepped straight from their degree into teacher training. I was halfway through a self-indulgent PhD in English, with no real ambition beyond continuing to spend my days reading increasingly obscure literary biographies, when I ran out of money and needed a sensible career quickly.
Like a predictable romantic comedy, it was only over time that I fell in love with a profession that was not remotely glamorous, required a ton of hard work and perseverance, and often took me for granted. But being able to spend every day helping others appreciate my favourite subject is a privilege and any teacher reading this will have found themselves feeling like winners of a cosmic lottery at least once in a while. This must equally be true of those in vocational areas: once you’ve built up subject or industry experience, it’s easier to step into teaching if you can continue to earn a salary while doing so.
As someone who came through the secondary-graduate teacher programme route, I realise I am the forerunner of these apprentices. I remember the benefits of just getting on with teaching weeks before our parallel PGCE cohort even saw a classroom. But I also remember being rather unreflective and sometimes skipping the training days because I arrogantly believed that I was already doing the job, so didn’t need them.
Much of the training I did attend was of questionable quality and focus, so I pitied the PGCEs who were suffering much more of it. Meanwhile, I quickly became an insular and selfish trainee, missing early opportunities to collaborate and share practice that would have undoubtedly accelerated my development as a teacher. Neither route was perfect.
Parity not achieved through policy
FE already supports alternative routes into teaching, such as the diploma or Cert-Ed, that strike a balance between classroom experience and quality pedagogical input. A great strength of our sector is the diversity in the backgrounds of our incredibly skilled, knowledgeable, and dedicated workforce. In fact, some of the very best teachers I’ve known came through a figurative apprenticeship of first working as a teaching assistant or enabler.
I realise that it wouldn’t be compatible with the current attempt to solve the recruitment crisis by promising rapid promotion, but I do think that spending at least a year in the classrooms of a range of teachers, working closely with the neediest learners, and seeing if you want to keep coming back every day, would be the most effective way to secure committed and resilient practitioners. Judging by the details released by the DfE, I expect that the new apprenticeships will produce excellent teachers. And some terrible teachers. Like every other route.
I think these apprenticeships, seemingly indistinguishable from other work-based routes, might be a genuine but clumsy political effort to engineer a sense of ‘parity of esteem’ between the vocational and the academic at a time when ‘skills’ is still seen by some as a dirty word.
What Justine Greening has not understood is that such parity isn’t achieved through policy, or in partisan commentary, or in school sixth forms, or in workplaces, but it does already happen in FE – sometimes. It’s when academic and vocational learners exist together indistinguishably. It’s when academic and vocational teachers share their practice, and their purpose, and their chocolate biscuits. It’s when we’re all working together for our young people and how we all got there is the last thing on our minds.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South-West college. He tweets @Education720