Degree apprenticeships: What education can learn form social work

For once social work reform has preceded education reform - and the sector should be mindful of the lessons we've learned, writes Joe Hanley

For once social work reform has preceded education reform - and the sector should be mindful of the lessons we've learned, writes Joe Hanley

10 Mar 2023, 5:00

Policy reforms in social work in England have frequently taken inspiration from teaching. Teach First for teachers led to Frontline for social workers. The Education Endowment Foundation led to What Works for Children’s Social Care. Upcoming reforms look likely to continue this trend, with an Early Career Framework and postgraduate degree apprenticeship route soon coming to social work, both already having been implemented for teachers.

As a result we often turn to our colleagues in teaching for their insights in trying to make sense of these reforms, and in particular the lofty promises that accompany them. I am happy to return the favour here in regards to the recent announcement that a teacher degree apprenticeship is being developed. For once it seems social work has the lead, having introduced the social work degree apprenticeship back in 2018.

Below are some key insights drawn from the experience of the degree apprenticeship in social work that I suggest teaching colleagues reflect upon.

Access, inclusion and diversity

As with the new teacher degree apprenticeship, the social work degree apprenticeship was welcomed with hopes that it would open up opportunities for those already working alongside social workers, sometimes called social work assistants. However, as well as reducing some barriers, the degree apprenticeship model also creates new ones, meaning these promised benefits around access are challenging to achieve.

For example, degree apprentices need to be nominated directly by their employers. Once accepted, apprenticeship rules dictate they are tracked and monitored in ways not required for those on other routes. Apprentices also usually have to take a substantial pay cut, limiting the pool to only those who can afford to do so. This all means that degree apprenticeships have a poor track record on diversity and inclusion.

Regulation and implementation

If teacher degree apprenticeships take off, teachers should get used to trying to keep up with the frequent national rule changes covering everything from funding to off-the-job learning time. These changes usually require swift implementation and rarely account for the specific challenges of individual degrees or professions.

We were even told, shortly after the national approval of the social work degree apprenticeship, that it did not meet current funding rules. The amount of time and resources the sector has had to commit to overcoming this mistake, not of our making, over the past few years would be startling if it could be measured. Which brings me to my third insight.

Resourcing and infrastructure

Apprenticeships are a lot of work. The development, implementation and maintenance of apprenticeships require substantial time and resource commitments, and much like social work, these are sorely lacking in education. Apprenticeships also add to already over-complicated and segregated qualifying landscapes.

The lengthy roll-out of apprenticeships can act as a distraction from broader workforce recruitment and retention challenges. In social work, recruitment and retention have worsened significantly since the introduction of the degree apprenticeship. Yet the Department for Education continues to suggest more apprenticeships are the answer, with retention and supporting existing routes ever on the back burner. 

National challenges

Any reliance on an apprenticeship route to meet future workforce demands in teaching should be undertaken with full acknowledgement of the fragility of the model nationally. Since the apprenticeship levy was introduced in 2017, it has led to a substantial decrease in the number of apprentices, drop-out rates of almost 50 per cent and the dominance of large employers who frequently use the apprenticeship levy to provide expensive qualifications to top executives instead of new trainees.

There are few who do not accept that the apprenticeship model is in urgent need of reform. Unfortunately, many of the suggested reforms call for an end to degree-level apprentices like social work (and soon, teaching). Labour, who will likely be in power before the first teacher degree apprenticeship even starts, have also committed to overhauling and replacing the current apprenticeship levy model.  

Therefore I urge teaching colleagues to not allow ideological hope and belief in what apprenticeships should be to overshadow the realities of what apprenticeships currently are.

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One comment

  1. Mr Robbie

    I think the headline is misleading because actually what we need is more people taking apprenticeships and more people sticking to them. This might mean that during one’s apprenticeship, you live at home rather than moving out at 18, but that’s okay, no shame in that. I think you’re right in saying it needs reforming and I think we do that by turning 100 of the old polytechnics into apprenticeship hubs where employers pay for education and keeping the classic universities as universities where the individual pays for education. Degree apprenticeships are the future, the government just needs to be clever about getting people to take them