Teaching will cease to exist as a university graduate-only profession under Conservative plans for a new degree-equivalent apprenticeship route to QTS, Justine Greening has confirmed, in a major shift in ministerial thinking.

The education secretary wants higher apprenticeships to be seen as equivalent to university degrees, and envisages them working as a route into teaching, even for those who have never set foot in a higher education institution.

In an interview with Schools Week ahead of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Greening discussed the plans for the first time.

She claimed teaching would remain a “principally graduate profession”, but that she wanted a technical route to exist too.

For her, this is as much about parity of esteem for vocational education as it is about teacher training. She wants a higher level of technical study to be available to learners in most careers, and teaching is no exception.

There are lots of reasons why technical education has not been at the level that we have wanted for our country

“A lot of people increasingly want to be able to combine going into the workplace and pursuing a career with also studying,” she said.

“I think there are lots of reasons why technical education has not been at the level that we have wanted for our country. One of them is that people who want to see their education through to a high level haven’t really seen that ladder in technical education, and that’s why we’re try to do is start to build it up, right to a degree apprenticeship level.”

Greening’s comments will likely set her at odds with teaching unions.

A recent poll of over 750 teachers by Teacher Tapp found 82 per cent of teachers believed the profession should remain “graduate only”.


Questions hang over teaching apprenticeships

The jury is also still out on teaching apprenticeships, with outstanding questions about the quality of training, and pay and conditions.

The minimum salary for apprentices in their first year of training is £3.50 per hour, which be a substantial cost-saving for cash-strapped schools and a serious undercut of current salaries.

Will schools be able to keep staff on the minimum or unqualified teacher salaries for all their years of training, for example? Will the one day of off-the-job training every week that apprenticeships currently require be enough to create brilliant teachers?

There are also questions about how these apprenticeships will be accredited. If they are run by universities and have the same content as a BA in education, will teachers inundate the apprenticeship route to avoid exorbitant tuition fees, leaving university departments threadbare or facing closure?

These are not questions Greening can answer at this stage. She doesn’t want to pre-empt a future announcement on reforms to strengthen QTS by going into too much detail. But her position is clear: teaching will no longer be the sole preserve of university graduates.

“I think we’ve tried to make sure that teaching is a profession that actually can have a really broad group of people able to go into it, and that’s why we’ve looked at how a teaching apprenticeship might work, bringing that sort of thinking to it,” she said.

“I’ve been quite clear in my mind that I do think we need to make sure that the profession is highly regarded and is seen as a high-status profession.”

Her views on teacher training, though important, are unlikely to be at the top of the agenda for her conference speech on Sunday. Reforms to QTS, first promised in the last government’s now-defunct education white paper, are still a work in progress.


A focus on alternative provision

Greening’s current preoccupation is with social mobility, not the technicalities of the school system.

One of her first priorities this year is finding a solution to the patchy quality of alternative provision, an issue Schools Week has highlighted in a recent series of hard-hitting investigations. She hints that more be will be revealed on this at the Manchester conference over the weekend.

“Children who end up in alternative provision, in some cases get an amazing amount of attention and success in helping them get on track, but in other cases don’t at all,” she admits. “I don’t think we can ignore the varying outcomes for children who end up in alternative provision.”

I think there can be a tendency perhaps for people to see school improvement as a single journey

Greening says she wants to bring forward proposals to lift the standards of alternative provision. In designing these proposals, the government will learn from existing best practice.

She is not the first politician in her position to announce such a move, but given the mounting pressure to improve pupil referral units, her pledge is particularly timely. The education select committee, chaired by the former skills minister Robert Halfon, is to investigate the matter this term, so Greening needs to act fast.

She feels “very strongly” that alternative provision needs to improve: “Those children get one shot at their education, and it’s got to be an outstanding one.”

In the short term, though, her ambition is to see a good school place on offer for every child. She seems relatively unfazed by ongoing issues with the academies programme, but she is keen to ensure that multi-academy trusts are not allowed to expand beyond their capacity in future.

Does Greening envisage a repeat of the situation with the Wakefield City Academy Trust, which has just had to hand back 21 of its schools? She is unmoved; schools face challenges “for a variety of reasons”, she says, insisting that “as ever in life, there’s never one single policy that solves every single issue”.

“I think there can be a tendency perhaps for people to see school improvement as a single journey. So a school will go from being not good enough to suddenly better, and somehow then everything is fine,” she said.

“Actually, there’s more that needs to be done to help schools sustain that, and all schools in the end need to be looking at school improvement. We need to look rigorously at the capacity of MATs to deliver the existing portfolio of schools that they look after, as well as their ability to expand.”

But what if they don’t have that capacity?

“They certainly won’t be expanding.”