Why Teaching Apprenticeships are a mess — and how to solve it

Will the government’s new teaching apprenticeships be ‘degree level’ or ‘a degree’? The distinction may not be simple, explains editor Laura McInerney


Teaching apprenticeships are on the way whether the profession wants them or not.

We first reported on them almost two years ago — in a front page that people called alarmist at the time — but plans have been in motion ever since.

Yet, despite us knowing about apprenticeships for ages, there is still a coyness in the way government talks about them.

In today’s much-read interview, Justine Greening said that teaching would remain a “principally graduate profession” but she wanted to build a “technical route” including up to “degree apprenticeships”.

Some people hit back at our story which said the profession was therefore open to non-university graduates. Critics pointed out that “degree apprenticeships” do award degrees to participants so, in reality, anyone who gets one is a university graduate.

Here’s the thing, though: Justine Greening isn’t talking only about ‘degree apprenticeships’. Even the Chartered College of Teaching, who wrote a blog supposedly clarifying this point, switched between that phrase and “degree-level apprenticeships”.

People may think there’s not a difference between those two things. But there is:

– A degree apprenticeship is, basically, a university degree that you do while working for a sponsor organisation.

– A higher apprenticeship can be at the exact same level of difficulty – so, level 6 is equivalent to an undergraduate course – but people on these are not granted full degrees. They receive a qualification which is equivalent to a degree: but it is not a full degree.

Does the distinction matter? Well, on the one hand, they’re just labels. But teachers do seem very attached to the “university graduate” profession aspect of their work. Many feel only full degrees cut the mustard given the expectations of the job.

What we need from Justine Greening is clarification: will the new route be a higher apprenticeship, or will it be a degree apprenticeship?

Update: Cat Scutt, from the College of Teaching, said they have been told by DfE it will NOT be possible to get QTS without a degree. Like, an actual degree apprenticeship style degree. Hmm. We shall see.


A bigger issue for the government

Putting aside the clarification for now…

If the thing about apprenticeships sounds a simple question, there’s a secret reason why it’s hard to answer. I’ve not yet seen anyone write about this secret reason, because it’s tricky. But bear with me while I try to explain, as it’s important for understanding the mess teaching apprenticeships are in.

The first problem facing government is that qualified teacher status (QTS) isn’t a qualification. It is, as the name suggests, a “status”.

This means, at present, you can achieve QTS by doing an undergraduate degree in education, OR a postgraduate qualification, OR by being ticked off by an independent assessment centre.

This is hugely problematic for the rules governing apprenticeships.

See, technical education is supposed to qualify you for doing a specific job. A level 2 qualification is supposed to lead to a different job than, say, a level 3 qualification. In Construction, for example, a level 2 apprenticeship may make you an operative, a level 3 makes you a technician, a level 4 makes you a supervisor.  What technical routes cannot have is an undergraduate (level 6) apprenticeship which leads to the same job outcome as a postgraduate (level 7) apprenticeship.

Hence, the government has a problem. It wants to put teaching assistants without degrees onto undergraduate-level apprenticeships and, at the end, give them QTS. But it also wants to create a postgraduate apprenticeship route – akin to School Direct or Teach First – which also grants QTS. This is a no go. In the world of technical education that’s like getting some people to do a GCSE while others do an A-level, but giving them both a GCSE certificate.

What then to do? One solution is to make only the postgraduate route to QTS into an apprenticeship. But that screws the whole point of “opening up the profession” to the (alleged) thousands of teaching assistants who want to become teachers but can’t because they don’t have a degree.

Alternatively, the government could make QTS an outcome of the undergraduate apprenticeship. But what about the people who want to do a postgrad apprenticeship like School Direct? It would be silly to expect those with a first degree to do a second undergraduate degree in order to become a teacher. We have enough of a shortage already without trying that daft move!

All of which is why I expect Justine Greening’s new “strengthened” QTS, which she’s expected to announce on Sunday at Conservative conference, may well be about creating different levels of QTS, precisely to get around this problem. After all, it’s what I’d do if I was her!

The easiest way to solve the problem is to make QTS a multi-layered process. You get, say, QTS1 when you complete something degree-level (a BEd or a degree-level apprenticeship). You get QTS2 when you complete something postgraduate level (PGCE or apprenticeship). You get QTS3 by doing some in-school stuff, QTS4 by getting Chartered College of Teaching Status, and so on.

The sell to teachers is that the new multi-layer QTS ensures an entitlement to career-long continuous development. And it means Greening can say that while entry to the profession will now  be easier for those without degrees, (which is good for social mobility, her favourite buzz word), she is also creating a more “rigorous training” process that goes on throughout teacher’s careers – rather than stopping after your first year.

Neatly, this also solves the apprenticeship problem.

(It does, of course, bring in other problems, for example, disparity of pay across the scale — but that’s for another blog).

A few other bumps in the road

So far, so solutions-focused.

But there are two other problems for the apprenticeship issue, which the government needs to figure out.

1. Wages: Degree apprenticeships can take up to 7 years. During that time, people on them will only be covered by stingy minimum wage rules (especially in their first year). We know that around 40% of teachers leave within five years. This shift to apprenticeships, therefore, starts to look like a way to pay A LOT of teachers a low-wage throughout their ‘training’ years —  and never pay many of them a full wage. The QTS-split also means that teachers with degrees will be much more expensive than those without. Is that a good thing when schools are squeezed for cash? (I’ll let you answer that one for yourself)

2. Subject specialisms: The extent to which a teacher knows their subject, especially in secondary schools, is believed to be vital for quality teaching. A subject-based first degree is a good way to acquire this knowledge. This is why the postgraduate route is so popular for secondary teachers. It seems unlikely the new apprenticeships will have enough time dedicated to subject knowledge. This is of concern to many in the profession. And, I am fairly certain, to schools minister Nick Gibb, who has long championed the importance of subjects.

So are apprenticeships bad?

All of the above problems are likely to be solvable. They have to be. The apprenticeship levy is hitting schools. Budgets remain squeeze. Schools will have to find cheaper ways of staffing their classrooms and apprenticeships are going to be it. We can lily-liver over this all we want: the fact is, it’s happening.

What’s not helpful is the slippery, incomprehensible language used to talk about the changes. Greening needs to make some decisions and stick to them. She needs to explain those decisions clearly. And she needs to make a call: Will these apprenticeships come with a guaranteed degree, or not? Will they have a required minimum salary, or not? And will they be undergraduate level or postgraduate?

Let’s watch and see what she has to say on Sunday. She can have my solution for free.


Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


  1. The era of GCSE maths being taught by non-maths graduates will look like a golden age if this mess comes to fruition. What high quality education system anywhere in the world plans to educate its next generation using cheap, unqualified staff? When you can become a teacher with fewer qualifications than 50% of the population, why would high achieving graduates want to commit their lives to the “job”?
    It does seem as though the teaching profession is seen by the government as a disease that needs to be eradicated. I guess if this is their objective, they are succeeding. And the Headteacher professional associations seem complicit by their deafening silence over what is the destruction of the nation’s powerhouse of future prosperity.

  2. People arnt going to get in thousands of pounds of debt going to university to become a teacher in the volumes required over coming decades so entry into the profession needs to be more open. Apprenticeships are a great way to do this. Teachers need to stop being so focussed on the idea that university entry and becoming a graduate is something all high achieving students should be aiming for and better try to understand vocational education

  3. We have a new plan which integrates education, work and lifelong learning – it would end student debt. Our solutions for the economy and environment would increase macro economic efficiency and environmental sustainability – so reducing teachers workloads.

    Get in touch to hear and contribute ideas, spread the word in social media, staff room, and union.