When I was at school the only people I had ever met who had been to University were my teachers. I was Burnley born and bred. Apart from an in and out trip to Wembley with the first eleven hockey team, the first time I’d ever been to London was when I went for an interview for my degree. I didn’t even make it into Manchester until I was 18. I grew up in a small town, with a small world view, but university opened up that world. It introduced me to people who had lived very different lives to mine, who had different ideas to mine. It gave me time and space to breathe, grow, mature and think. I studied Literature, but I learned so much more about life. It wasn’t all easy. I learned to cope with being skint. I learned to defend myself from attack. I learned to spot and avoid the fraudsters, petty thieves and scammers. I learned not to say yes to everyone, to have some self worth, to be confident enough in what I believed to be right and wrong. Being in a big city, being away from home, mixing with people from vastly different backgrounds to my own were all as valuable to me as my degree.
My teachers, having degrees, were able to help me to visualise that world and to give me the confidence to believe I belonged there. They knew what study was like at degree level, how it differed to A Level, what demands would be made of me. They were able to recommend reading and texts that would ease my transition into undergraduate study. They were able to tell me the benefits of learning to live independently. And of course, for them and for me, that opportunity was debt free. It was considered an entitlement to be able to go to university and improve the quality of your life chances. It was considered an investment to have a highly qualified work force. Times have changed.
Back in the ‘education, education, education’ 90s, the belief was that the more qualified a population, the more wealthy the country. But the mantra came with a price tag. No longer would the state invest in you. You would have to invest in yourself. The benefits would outweigh the costs. And they may well have if house prices had not risen so dramatically. Our young graduates now leave university laden with debt in an increasingly competitive job market, unable to afford their own homes and struggling to afford rents. It’s a terrible betrayal of a generation and it’s been right to start to question whether or not a degree is all it’s cracked up to be.
My Dad trained on the job as an accountant. It took him years, but he eventually passed his chartered accountancy exams and ran his own business with no need for a degree. He consistently took on A Level apprentices even when elsewhere it was considered necessary for accountants to have degrees (interestingly, those ‘elsewhere’ places like Ernst and Young have reverted back to the idea that a degree is not necessary). He’d sign them onto college courses and they took exams to be either certified, or chartered accountants. For young people with no desire to go to University it was a great option to be earning and learning, building a career and future. No-one can knock the opportunities that great apprenticeships can offer. But should there be an apprenticeship route into teaching? I’d strongly argue not.
While in occupations like Engineering and Accountancy, a great deal of professional knowledge has to be gained, the knowledge is fixed – i.e you learn the laws either of taxation or physics and while things change or new discoveries and technologies happen, there is a high level of certainty in what you know. You apply this to practice, usually in an office or factory setting, away from other people. You are introduced to clients slowly and under supervision. You never have to deal with 30 of them at a time. But teacher knowledge is different. While there is a body of ‘fixed’ subject knowledge, there is also the matter of shifting and complex bodies of knowledge which are dependent on a number of personal skills and attributes – pedagogical and cognitive knowledge, praxis, the ability to read, understand, assimilate and communicate material, to critically engage with research, to manage human behaviours and emotions. Teaching is consistently rated as one of the top three most stressful professions and managing that stress is dependent on resilience and emotional intelligence – both of which are strengthened by experience and maturity. To place an 18 year old in such a complex environment, where the stakes are so high in terms of outcomes is, in my opinion, irresponsible.
Who does a child aspiring to go to university ask about what university life is like? How will a teacher who has only ever studied a subject to A level himself, answer questions about the demands a degree would make? How will they offer the most able tasks that will stretch them beyond the syllabus? How will they lift the heads of those who have known nothing other than their local communities and show them what lies beyond a horizon? How will they cope with the demands of parents at parent’s evening? The tantrums of a neglected and abused child? The difficulties of creating a sense of authority with those almost the same age as themselves?
In my career, I’ve dealt with some of these situations:-
A child telling me his greatest fear is that his Dad will escape from prison and kill his Mum.
A child disclosing her pregnancy to me.
A child telling me that her ‘boyfriend’ wants to meet up and that she’s worried he won’t like her in real life. He’s only ever seen her on screen and she’s never seen him at all…
A parent threatening to smack another parent in the face.
A parent threatening to smack me in the face.
A parent threatening to smack his child in the face…
I’ve struggled with every one of these, even though I was 24 when I started to teach – the average age, apparently that our executive brain functions mature – the functions that help us deal with controlling our emotions, managing our time, meeting deadlines, making wise and reasoned decisions. The functions that help teachers to deal with the difficulties their jobs entail. I worry about the pressure of expectation we’d be placing on these young apprentices. I worry about the boundaries. And I worry about the ability they’d have to help children to see past their current lives. But I also worry about what it says about the status of our profession.
When the last government commissioned reports into what made education systems successful, summarised in the McKinsey report as “no education system can exceed the quality of its teachers,” it led to the belief that the most highly qualified teachers were the best teachers. Of course, this is flawed. A First class honours degree doesn’t help you with a rowdy class. But subject knowledge matters. It matters a lot according to the report by the Sutton Trust/CEM into what makes great teachers. Chris Husbands, questioning the wisdom of the McKinsey quote amended it to “the quality of its teaching” and subsequent work by Rob Coe and others reinforces the idea that great teaching is very much connected to deep knowledge and an ability to make nuanced decisions about how best to communicate knowledge, recognise misconceptions and amend them. This is highly skilled stuff. Husbands also notes that the common denominator in successful systems is the status that teachers hold in society. It is more difficult to become a teacher in Finland than it is to become a doctor or lawyer. In most successful systems, teachers are expected not only to be educated to degree level, but beyond. Their academic ability is beyond doubt. The rest is delivered by high quality CPD, ongoing peer support and an expectation that planning and assessment are important enough to be given ample time in the timetable. The reason that there are no teacher shortages in these countries is because it is seen to be an honour to be a teacher. There are no shortcuts. You have to work for it.
The advocates of apprenticeships say that it allows poorer students, who may be put off teaching by tuition fees, access to the profession. What in reality it will do is create a two tiered system in which those who could afford to pay to go to University end up in the best schools with the best jobs and more options open to them. International schools, for example would not accept an application from a candidate without a degree and formal, university based teaching qualification. Nor, I expect, would a private or grammar school. Outstanding state schools, keen to protect their results and more likely to recruit high quality candidates, will continue to cream off the best. So we’ll see poorer teachers teaching poorer children while middle class parents continue to demand highly qualified teachers.
Instead we should be seeking to create a level playing field. We should invest in ITT by funding the professional qualification. It should not cost anyone anything to train as a teacher. For primary, we could extend the BEd, which was shown in a recent DataLab report into cost effectiveness of teacher training routes, to be the cheapest as well as one of the best routes into primary teaching. We should recognise that a degree is about way more than a qualification, it is about aspiration and ambition. And if we are truly serious about ensuring that all children have the opportunity to pursue their ambitions, we should be making certain that the people in their lives who will lay down the pathway to their futures, can see possibilities beyond the confines of their current environment. No accountant, engineer or mechanic is responsible for shaping the dreams and ambitions of young people. Teachers are.