Like previous posts, I feel I should start with a couple of disclaimers:
1. I’m not sure anyone can argue over the success of Teach First. It has been exceptionally successful in recruiting large numbers of highly successful graduates into the most challenging schools. Without a programme like Teach First, we clearly would not have some of the best graduates teaching in some of the country’s most deprived areas.
2. Following tweachers like @redorgreenpen, @Kris_Boulton, Joe__Kirby and others, in addition to having a number of friends on the Teach First programme, I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for the work they do. Teaching is hard wherever you teach, but learning to teach in a challenging school deserves everyone’s high admiration.
But it’s with those two disclaimers that I have to part ways with Teach First.
1. ‘The Mission’. You just can’t argue with TF’s mission (summarised here) – young people’s life chances are too often hampered by poverty and a wasted education. Education is the key to social mobility. You also can’t argue with the passion and drive with which teach firsters approach the mission. I went to several TF recruitment drives at university, and was equally affected by what the recruiters had to say, but became uncomfortable with the idea that you could be so convinced of the mission to change people’s life chances, but then leave to work as a consultant or civil servant two years’ later. There are plenty of teach-firsters who don’t do this, I know, but the principle that you give yourself to education for two years before going on to be successful doesn’t sit right with me. I want teaching to be a profession that people want to sign up to as a career, not simply as something they do between university and a life in the City.
2. Training to Teach/ Learning to Cope. I spent a year as a full time, English teacher in a teach-first equivalent school in Italy on my year abroad at university. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I learnt a lot about the tough reality of teaching. But did I learn how to become an effective classroom practitioner? Not really. I learnt what I had to do to get from the beginning to the end of the lesson without having losing my voice. I learnt the most effective way to get my students’ bags off the desk in the first half hour of the lesson, and eventually my students learnt a few sentences of English. I learnt how to get the best from my lessons in difficult circumstances.
Many of my colleagues have told me that a teacher’s training years are the most precious of their career. On a reduced timetable, with the opportunity to visit other schools, watch other teachers and read around your subject, trainee teachers can engage in the messy business of making pedagogy meet practice. You just can’t do that properly when you’re teaching a 90% timetable and your lessons are routinely an uphill struggle.
3. A bigger problem. I fear that Teach First tries to cover up the cracks of what is a much deeper problem in education. We need to be focussing on making sure the most experienced, most effective teachers work in the country’s most challenging schools. And we should be offering financial incentives for the best teachers to stay in these schools. To put the hopes and futures of the country’s most challenging young people in the hands of those with equally high hopes but only the most basic of training is almost cruel. We should be taking these same teachers, training them into highly effective practitioners and then paying them a wage they deserve. At the moment we are equipping potentially highly effective teachers with survival skills rather than proven pedagogy with the result that they may be stifling their own potential.
4. Teach First in the bigger picture. I’m a huge fan of school-based teacher training. I have genuinely enjoyed my GTP year and think that it was probably the best route into teaching for me. What I don’t want though, is for Teach First to be seen as a model that should be rolled out across the whole country. This is already happening with the School’s Direct Salaried Route, where a teacher is paid at the lowest point of the Unqualified Teachers’ Pay Scale (while it still exists) and is given up to a 90% timetable and expected to complete their training to a high standard. This is a race to the bottom in terms of quality teacher training if ever I have seen it. The highly selective nature of the Teach First programme is an excellent principle, and we should be applying principles such as these to the ITT routes we already have so that teaching as a whole becomes a more popular (and therefore more competitive) career choice. But we should do this with the German model in mind, where teaching is a perceived as a competitive life-long career, rather than something that will look good on your CV before you move on and do better things.
To finish, I repeat – I have huge respect for those who do Teach First, and hope that the best of them choose to stay in education and continue the huge impact they are having on young people’s lives. I’m not convinced, however, that this is a model we should be adopting in the long term to raise the status of teaching in the UK.