There is an interesting debate raging in the U.K. after the government proposed a wholly vocational route into teaching. Although it is intended to be a ‘degree equivalent’, trainee teachers would not graduate from university in the traditional way and would instead learn on the job. The initial reaction from many teachers on Twitter was that this would deprofessionalise teaching and suspicions were raised that it is intended as a cheap solution to the problem of teacher supply. Under current arrangements apprentices may be paid as little as £3.50 per hour, which is far less than paying for proper teachers. Schools that are struggling to manage their budgets might find this attractive.
Others then weighed-in to the discussion, sensing hypocrisy. Backing the government, Sean Harford of the English schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted, accused teachers of preaching the equivalence of vocational and academic routes yet not wanting it for their own profession.
I think this term ‘equivalence’ is a problem here. I don’t see much value in vocational courses prior to the end of formal schooling, and this is as someone involved in attempting to set-up such courses in a previous role. They are a poor alternative to basic academic learning. The theory is that students will be so motivated by hairdressing or vehicle maintenance that this will push them through the contextualised key skills courses in English and maths that they complete on the side; the stuff that they really need. But it doesn’t work like that. Kids need the basics first and the best way to learn this is not as an afterthought in a complex context.
I recently tweeted about the fact that Germany has improved in PISA over the last 17 years whereas Finland has declined. Dylan Wiliam then linked to a blog post explaining the changes that Germany has made in that time. One of these has been a move away from sorting kids at the age of ten into vocational and academic streams.
Perhaps for some students, the school system and their personal circumstances have failed them and they would be better off starting work or training as a traditional apprentice. But this is not because they are not ‘academic’, it is not an intrinsic property of the student.
After compulsory education has ended, vocational routes make more sense. But are they ‘equivalent’ to academic ones? I have no problem with a parity of esteem; that we hold them in as high regard. Even so, this is manifestly not the case in England where the general public think of degrees as superior. What is absolutely clear is that they are different to academic routes. You learn on the job, focusing on the tasks involved in doing that job. Academic learning does not have the same focus. Instead, it is built around growing and applying discipline knowledge, wherever that leads.
Teachers teach these disciplines, even generalist primary school teachers. And so teachers need an understanding of them. It is therefore essential that they have reached a recognised threshold of academic learning themselves. If anything, we should be pursuing this with greater vigour, not watering it down. I cannot prove that this will make teachers more effective but this is about our values as a society. And by raising the status of teaching we probably will end up with better teachers.
However, I am not making an argument for teaching degrees. I think all teachers, including primary teachers, would be better served by studying an academic subject at university and simply focusing on that for a few years. I can’t point to any studies but I can point to the fact that, just as with those hairdressing students, learning vocational aspects of teaching alongside learning your subject is incoherent. Once students have finished a degree in a subject, there should be a variety of routes open to train as a teacher. I still believe that university-based teacher education courses have the potential to deliver the best mix of theory and practice but I don’t think they do a brilliant job at the moment. That’s why I believe that school-based alternatives, as have already emerged in the U.K., offer an opportunity to improve the whole sector through competition.
The charge of hypocrisy is perhaps valid for those teachers who have spent years preaching the equivalence of vocational and academic routes. I am not one of those teachers. Vocational learning and academic learning are different and nothing good ever comes of trying to pretend that they are the same.