Apprentices are the next generation of early years teachers, so their importance to the sector is absolute.
Our duty is to attract, recruit, train and nurture our apprentices as part of our settings’ and sector’s succession plan.
To do this, we must ignite a spark of interest for pedagogy and turn it into a flame so bright that apprentices fall in love with early years and stay forever.
Apprentices need great learning experiences if they’re to succeed. They need to be welcomed as students, and supported and trained. In a sector where we have a continual recruitment crisis, some apprentices are pushed into ratios too soon, become overwhelmed and leave the sector forever.
It’s often better to start the relationship with an apprentice using a clear contract of expectations, not just in terms of their learning requirements but also the behaviour expected from both apprentice and manager.
Learning is a partnership, built from harmonious relationships and pedagogical coaching. Some apprentices have not long left school, so understanding their learning approach is important, as is helping them adapt to the workplace to know how to behave.
How many of us know the hidden rule of cups in the kitchen, understand the approved version of tidying up and recognise gossip? These are much harder to unravel than the rules of setting up an activity or changing a nappy!
Investing in apprentices is vital given how disappointed many in the sector are with the calibre of some newly qualified Level 3 staff, particularly their grasp of pedagogy and their role as early years teachers.
Whether they’re called educators or practitioners, the role of the staff member is to care for and teach our children, and that means understanding how we support their learning through nurturing relationships, kind interactions, activities, provocations, routines and resources.
For this reason, many providers want to expand their apprenticeship programmes. At LEYF we’ve trebled our number of apprentices, confident in the belief that our home-grown teachers are some of our best.
Seventeen years ago, I started my training as an NVQ apprentice. Since then, I’ve moved through the nursery managerial roles and am now the LEYF apprentice manager. I’m passionate about the importance of recruiting, training, retaining and promoting apprentices because I believe they’re the best staff pipeline.
But they must be well-trained staff if they’re to understand, deliver and advocate high-quality practice. The investment in apprentices is powerful and those who are allocated the task of coaching apprentices need themselves to be rewarded with training and support.
The COVID-19 crisis has given me a greater insight into the needs of apprentices because of the deep conversations I’ve had with them as they cope with the implications of the pandemic on their training experiences.
It struck me how easily they can be overlooked and how we often don’t give them sufficient time to wallow in play with the children.
I remember my own experience of being an apprentice with great fondness. I was evangelical about my role. Without the training and guidance I received from my tutors, managers and colleagues, I doubt I’d have reached the level I’m at now.
I want to shine a light on the importance of giving all apprentices the same experience I had.
When advertising for apprentices, we need to consider both men and women. The proportion of UK early years professionals who are male is miniscule and has barely grown over the last 20 years.
There are many reasons for this, but we’re constantly learning from research about the best ways to encourage men into childcare. Just before COVID-19, LEYF launched two cohorts of apprentices including an all-male apprentice cohort.
The intention was to work with the University of Wolverhampton to carry out action research as to whether an all-male cohort would attract more men into an early years apprenticeship programme.
Sadly, this was delayed by the pandemic, but we hope to run it over the coming months.
And early years apprenticeships don’t only apply to nursery teachers and practitioners. Chefs matter too. The LEYF Early Years Chef Academy has an accredited Early Years Professional Cooking Award that chefs can complete through an apprentice route.
Other roles in bigger early years settings can include administrative and finance roles.
Apprentices are a perfect solution to many business functions but only if they’re learning from the best.
The future for early years apprentices is bright if the government’s apprenticeship schemes continue to shine a spotlight on them. For example, the Kickstarter Scheme is a good idea, although there’s a risk that those who start the scheme may have no commitment to remain as a full-time apprentice.
The government must find an appropriate way to simplify the levy fund process. Currently, we rely on the levy as the main source of apprenticeship funding, but this is impractical as the levy pot is nearly always empty.
We need another funding route and a means of ensuring those who have underspent their levy can put it in a central pot with the early years tag on it.
In September, we had the pleasure of hosting a virtual round table with Toby Perkins MP, the shadow apprentice minister, with early years colleagues to discuss some of these issues relating to the government apprentice strategy, and we await their responses.
We’re now addressing the newest challenge of the second lockdown and how we continue to build our apprentices’ skills while dealing with the alarming spread of the new COVID-19 variant.
Balancing these operational issues while trying to keep apprentices healthy, engaged and learning in a safe environment alongside their virtual taught lessons is a challenge.
It’s even harder if they’re based at home and reliant on the internet for contact and motivation. The sector is a great supporter of early years apprenticeships. We want to use this route to develop the next generation of staff.
However, we cannot do this without a government commitment to proper funding so we can make apprenticeships the preferred training option for recruits who want to become great early years teachers.
The mantra must be, “Once they come, they have such a great experience they never want to leave.”
Michelle Samuels is LEYF’s apprentice programme manager.