Teacher apprentices: Too much spin and not enough substance

by Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the ASsociation of School and College Leaders
Last weekend, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan announced a small pilot scheme to test out the idea of teacher degree apprenticeships – a scheme primarily aimed at providing teaching assistants, who may make great teachers but may not have a degree, with a route into the profession. 

The idea is that trainees will spend around 40% of their time studying with an accredited provider, gain qualified teacher status and have all their tuition fees paid.
The pilot scheme will fund up to 150 apprentices to work in secondary schools to teach maths who will be recruited from this autumn and start their training the following year.
Put like this, it is an initiative which sounds perfectly sensible – an idea with laudable intentions that is being road-tested to see how it works in practice and how it might be rolled out on a wider scale in the future.
Unfortunately, the announcement – which came in the form of a press release – was massively overstated. It breathlessly claimed that this initiative would revolutionise the way schools recruit teachers. Ms Keegan described it as “a game-changing opportunity for schools to nurture and retain talent from the ground up.” 

The press release giddily went on to inform us that there are almost 400,000 teaching assistants in state-funded schools in England. The use of this number is presumably meant to convey the potential for attracting many more people into teaching at a time when schools and colleges are experiencing chronic teacher shortages.
Remember that this is in fact a pilot scheme that hasn’t been launched yet, is unproven, and will involve “up to” 150 apprentices.
I suspect that these apprenticeships will actually be difficult to deliver at scale – hard-pressed schools may struggle to provide the training infrastructure around degree apprenticeships. I also suspect that, even where this is possible, it may not actually attract large numbers of applicants. It is hard to see how it will lead to recruitment of anything like the order that is needed to improve the dire teacher supply crisis that currently exists. Only a concerted recruitment and retention campaign built around improved pay and conditions will do that.
In saying this, I’m not being snarky – honest. I am not making these observations to shoot down the apprenticeship scheme. It is a worthy and well-intentioned idea. I know from my experience as a grizzled teacher that there are many brilliant teaching assistants out there who may not have degrees, who would make great teachers. They deserve a route into the classroom. I also very much agree with championing and promoting apprenticeships in general. We need more opportunities for people to earn while they learn.
The point I am making is a wider one about an inherent problem with the way that the government hypes up announcements to the point at which they are no longer credible. It sometimes seems that no announcement can simply explain the facts; instead it has to be deemed to be world class, world-beating, ground-breaking, unprecedented, unique, first class, and so on.

Believe me, I’m not averse to a bit of hyperbole. But such constant over-claiming ultimately contributes to a public distrust of government and politicians which is really very corrosive. And in truth it isn’t something that this current government started – it goes back many years. 
We can understand why governments do this. It is part of the way politics works – the desire to always be making big announcements, of showing energy, ideas and dynamism. It is actually systemised in the famous/ infamous 'Downing Street grid’ – where announcements by different departments are scheduled in an endless cycle of headline-making policy initiatives. It is very likely that the apprenticeships announcement was lined up on this grid for the weekend at the outset of National Apprenticeships Week. Hence the slightly bizarre timing of a policy about education being launched on a Sunday morning.
It seems to me that this is one of those areas of public life that needs a reset. An approach to communications which may have worked in the past is now simply counterproductive, turning virtually every announcement into a Punch and Judy media tussle, with the hapless politician-of-the-day wheeled onto television and radio stations to defend this latest example of shimmering excellence, whilst the interviewer quietly and gleefully picks it apart. 

It leaves us - the public - bewildered. It would have been far better simply to have explained this initiative to schools and trusts in the first instance before launching it publicly, and then to have made the public announcement more straightforward, without all the accompanying rhetoric and unfeasibly wild claims.
How policies are communicated is essential to how they land with leaders, teachers, support staff, parents and communities. Most people are realistic. They can accept that many policies are something that may or may not work in practice and that it is a good idea to try out new ideas. They accept that life is imperfect and there are rarely easy solutions to intractable problems. 

But the more “political” an announcement, the more it is likely to be dismissed as government “spin”. The priorities are all wrong. It is surely more important to get buy-in for a policy than whip up a here-today-gone-tomorrow headline. 
And all of this goes back to a wider point that we have made on many occasions – that policies should be constructed through collaboration between policymakers and those on the ground – in this case schools and colleges. The idea of teacher apprenticeships has been in discussion for a while with a number of organisations, including unions, but the timing and the detail of the announcement on Sunday was a surprise.
It feels to me that the public would welcome a new approach to policymaking – one which is rooted in dialogue before an announcement is made. They’d appreciate it being communicated in a way which is more straightforward and less political. It would be a refreshing change which, over time, would actually benefit politicians and politics, winning back a greater degree of public trust, as well as making for better policymaking. 

And there’s a self-interest in all of this. If we want the brightest and best of our young people to choose careers in public life, to become our politicians of the future, then they particularly need to see beyond the tawdry and manipulative policy hype. 
We owe it to them – and an increasingly media-savvy public - to provide a more grown-up, nuanced and honest form of politics. Now, that would be genuinely ground-breaking.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.
Posted: 09/02/2024 08:47:28