There’s no reason why teacher apprenticeships can’t train new educators to the highest standards, says David Owen

In 1947, my father, aged 17, left the Welsh market town of Carmarthen to start an engineering apprenticeship at Austin Motors in Longbridge, Birmingham. This was the start of a successful career in the car industry; he became a chartered mechanical engineer status and ran a research department for a specialist motor firm. The apprenticeship scheme historically supported both social mobility and entrance to professional status alongside graduate engineers.

Fast forward to 1977, when I was in sixth form, and friends who left school at 16 were starting their own apprenticeships. Learning a craft was a respected activity, and considered a good choice even in the days of state-funded university education. But the rules changed in 1979.

The “intention to employ” aspect of apprenticeships was removed. Suddenly my friends were made redundant as soon as they finished their training. I and others went to university supported by a grant, whilst many former apprentices got a UB40 card. Apprenticeships in the UK didn’t seem so attractive after that, as employment in “trades” became deregulated and less important to many sectors of the global economy. Deregulating apprenticeships in the 1980s reduced social mobility for many of my peers.

Now, in 2017, apprenticeships are back, and they’re in the news in education. Employers with a payroll of over £3 million pay an apprenticeship levy, which they can claim back to spend on training their employees. You can study to be a higher-level or degree-level apprentice with many universities, including Sheffield Hallam. An employers’ group writes the apprenticeships standard, devises a training plan, submits it for government scrutiny and then all eligible employers can reclaim the costs of training.

Many headteachers have been enthusiastic about teachers on apprenticeships – it fits with the “grow your own” understanding of teacher preparation for those working in areas where candidate supply is difficult. There are many small-scale informal apprenticeship schemes in place which currently lead to part-time undergraduate degree qualification or progression to School Direct. This type of provision is well represented on the employers’ group currently developing the level seven teacher apprenticeship, led by Sir Andrew Carter, who have been vocal in their demand for undergraduate and postgraduate entry to the scheme.

Learning a craft was a respected activity, and considered a good choice even in the days of state-funded university education

Justine Greening’s announcement last week, that teaching apprenticeships will have parity of esteem alongside graduate routes, has divided teachers, teacher educators and commentators. However, combining learning in the workplace, pursuing a career and studying has always been popular within teaching. The popularity of part-time BEds and PGCEs, progression routes for FE teachers, and the employment-based early-years qualifications are evidence of this.

Top-up degrees for teaching assistants are very popular, and this year we have the highest number of primary teachers being trained via this route at Hallam. These routes allow for career-changers, carers and potential teachers who don’t come from privileged higher education backgrounds, and top-up trainees can achieve the highest levels of attainment.

Local authority and MAT partners have been in touch not only about the level seven apprenticeships (which are still being finalised by Andrew Carter’s team) but the need for secondary undergraduate apprenticeships in STEM subjects.

To those raising concerns about quality, I can speak from my own experience at Sheffield Hallam. As a university committed to providing apprenticeship learning as key part of being a leading applied university, and drawing on our partnership expertise in preparing local people to train as STEM teachers, we would ensure that teacher apprenticeships at undergraduate and postgraduate level were of high quality. The long-awaited reforms to QTS would deal with any concerns about parity of access to the profession, and it is worth remembering that free school, academies and independent schools still do not have to employ teachers with QTS.

Concerns about apprenticeships devaluing teaching as a graduate profession are understandable. The reality in many areas and subjects in South Yorkshire is that successful recruitment to teaching starts well before the completion of degree programmes. Undergraduates are funded to work in schools prior to School Direct, and volunteers are supported onto teaching assistant, cover supervisor and learning mentor programmes in preparation for future development.

It is also well documented that successful teacher preparation does not stop once QTS is awarded, and this is borne out by the popularity of the work that maths hubs, subject associations and teacher education providers do. After all, back in the day apprentices, went to night school at their local college or institute. Many of those classes will have taken place in buildings that today have a university charter and a continued commitment to widening participation, social mobility and meeting local needs.

The 2017 incarnation of apprenticeships do have a role to play in teacher preparation – the challenge is for employers and higher education to work together in using them wisely to widen access to the teaching profession.

David Owen is head of department for teacher education at the Sheffield Institute of Education