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'Teaching apprenticeships are a great idea. Teaching with an apprentice mindset is even better'

Just ask Doug Lemov and the team running the wildly successful Dixons Trinity free school, argues one multi-academy trust chief executive

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Just ask Doug Lemov and the team running the wildly successful Dixons Trinity free school, argues one multi-academy trust chief executive

Apprenticeships have rather dominated the news and discussion about teacher recruitment, retention, schools and their budgets of late. Is it a brilliant or awful situation that schools must pay the apprenticeship levy? Is it a welcome innovation or a devaluation of the profession to enable an apprenticeship for teaching? I see it as an opportunity to innovate and to ensure teaching is ranked alongside high-status professions, including accountancy and law, where apprenticeship routes to qualification are now widespread. It is said that such is the popularity of these "earn while you learn" routes with trainees and employers that a time will come when the Big Four accountancy firms won’t need other routes.

The newly approved teaching apprenticeship standard – in which the multi-academy trust I lead was part of the original expression of interest – has particularly divided opinion. Having been part of the group that developed the standard, I can confirm that the needs of schools came first and foremost; which employer wants to do anything other than recruit, train and retain the best possible staff for their school?

For me, the teaching apprenticeship is another way in which schools are being given the power to build the workforce they need. Of course, there are practicalities to work though, as with any innovation, but in a climate where recruitment is challenging, it’s got to be worth seeking to learn the lessons of the successful apprenticeships of other high-status professions.

One head I know, of a well-known large secondary in the East End of London, tells me this is the first academic year in 16 of his headship that his school has not been fully staffed. And in Kent, some 40 schools began the year without a substantive head in post. So it is clearly in the interest of the pupils we serve to give the teaching apprenticeship a chance.

The other thing that we should take note of with the apprenticeship model is that it is something for everyone. Both 16- and 56-year-olds undertake apprenticeships in many fields. The underpinning philosophy – earning while you learn – is what I am increasingly thinking of as an apprenticeship mindset. Training shouldn’t be something that happens close to initial qualification and is then just done to you for a handful of days a year – that’s certainly not how sportspeople get to be at the top of their game. It’s about embracing development, training and coaching – change, even, as an element of what it means to be part of a profession.

The inspirational Doug Lemov certainly has the apprenticeship mindset. He is a self-styled student of teachers. In England this week, with his dynamic Teach Like a Champion (TLAC) team, he is training and giving encouraging "shout outs" and "snaps" to those lucky teachers and school leaders who are spending two days in north London learning about his new suite of techniques called Ratio. The former Department for Education behaviour tsar Tom Bennett, no less, has extolled the impact of Doug and co’s training on social media, stating “He really is the business.” 

A former colleague of mine, who joined me on one of Doug’s courses on a previous London trip, posted that he found Doug’s training to be “life-changing in the way I viewed teaching”. This was from a senior vice principal of a high-performing non-selective inner-London school, a Russell Group-educated social scientist who had been teaching for many more years than I have fingers, and went on to headship. So what is it that is so special about Doug and the TLAC approach?

He makes no claim to be a great teacher. His books, he says, are just full of “someone else’s brilliant ideas… my idea was just to write it [sic] down”. An English teacher "recovering", as he puts it, from an MBA, and aware that teachers were leaving what ought to be the most rewarding profession, he’d studied patterns in high and low educational performance around the US and then gone to look at what teachers in the schools who did best by disadvantaged communities were doing. He found, broadly speaking, open-door and open-minded cultures (my words not his), and teachers looking at and helping each other. “Think about it,” writes Doug on his Field Notes blog, “there isn’t a problem in teaching and learning that someone somewhere hasn’t solved”. 

The most powerful aspect of Lemov-style training is that it has made it okay, cool even, to study the craft of teaching in calibrated and refined detail. The approach echoes the mastery fashions of teaching maths, embracing the culture of practice and repetition that has proven so effective in sport. It’s the 10,000-hours kind of thing applied to teaching. By advocating a "train the trainer" model, middle and senior leaders find themselves revisiting their own teaching techniques, first with Doug and then regularly with colleagues back in school, something that not so long ago might only have taken place with the most newly qualified. That’s a powerful leveller in schools, which can be such hierarchical places.

But does it work? If Dixons Trinity, a free school in Bradford, is anything to go by, yes it does. One of the distinguishing features of the school is the daily TLAC-inspired practice-perfect session. Here teachers and senior leaders share elements of what they are teaching later that day, giving each other feedback and trailing various of the TLAC techniques – inclusive ways of questioning, for instance. The Progress 8 tables released just this week tell us Dixons Trinity is getting it right – very right. The school ranks in the top 1 per cent nationally for Progress 8, despite its Opportunity Area location. Cue snaps and shout-outs for apprentice like-minded schools, such as Dixons, which are founded on the belief that we can all continue to refine our practice and learn while we earn.

Dr Jo Saxton is CEO of Turner Schools, a small MAT in Folkestone. She tweets @jjosaxton

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