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Flying high or by the seat of their pants?

Top graduates are being lured into the profession via Teach First,a controversial scheme that puts them into the classroom after just six weeks' training. Dennis Hayes reports

Despite some robust publicity, news of a controversial scheme that gives bright young graduates swift access into the classroom has made slow progress. But Teach First, a teacher-training scheme that adopts methods used in the United States, poses a serious challenge to a few of the UK's` cherished notions about education.

The scheme's reliance on corporate values to transform recruitment and retention may be unsavoury to traditionalists opposed to the increased commercial involvement in schools and universities. Certainly, the scheme has some serious backing, with sponsors including Citigroup, Corporation of London, Morgan Stanley and Canary Wharf Group, to name but a few.

Teach First was first conceived by a Princeton senior, Wendy Kopp, in the 1980s. She noted how top college graduates commonly undertook two-year internships with big corporations, and wondered why no such scheme existed in relation to teaching.

After graduating, she met a string of executives from big business and educationists. She sold the scheme as a high-status introduction to teaching that offered a competitive salary. In little more than a year, Kopp had succeeded in recruiting her target "teaching corps" of 500 high-flying graduates.

Since the inception of the Teach for America scheme in 1990, some 10,000 "exceptional" students have taken part. It is said that 60 per cent of them have remained in the classroom or other educational roles.

In 2000, a team of management consultants from McKinsey and Company sent a report to the British government which identified the need to boost teaching in London. The consultants were invited by the Prime Minister's office to set up a similar scheme in the UK. Thus arose the British version: Teach First.

Unlike its counterpart in the US, the British scheme had to build in a professional qualification, which is now overseen by Canterbury Christ Church University College - a choice largely based on the college's long experience of working with London boroughs and schools.

The Teach First team began recruiting from the top universities, keeping a particular eye out for candidates with excellent communication skills and those who embodied the McKinsey values: unrivalled knowledge, driven to be the best and capable of delivering the best, but also caring and committed to people.

The ideal candidates would include those who had not previously considered teaching, in contrast to other programmes in which a desire to teach and some experience of working with young people are usually standard criteria.

Candidates were referred to as "participants" rather than "trainees" to highlight the emphasis on a "new professionalism". When the time came, 185 graduates were chosen from 1,300 applications.

As it got off the ground, the scheme was greeted with some hostility. At one point it was dubbed a Voluntary Service Overseas for London. One London school reported that its Teach First noticeboard had been defaced with the words "Who do they think they are?"

Some have argued that the ethos of the scheme is essentially Thatcherite in its emphatic shift away from welfare state values. Another objection is that by targeting the best students at the top universities the programme is elitist. Others argue that the McKinsey ethos is unsuited to teaching, that subject knowledge and slick delivery of the curriculum are not enough, and that there is a need for professional development and the study of education theory - elements that do not figure in the scheme.

Shirley Lawes, a researcher in teacher training at St Martin's College, Lancaster, says the Teach First programme, which trains participants in a "summer institute" for just six weeks, offers a tool-kit approach to training that has little effect. She says premature and prolonged immersion in school-based practice means that graduates are often overwhelmed by the need to "survive in the classroom".

Another researcher, Linden West - author of Doctors on the Edge, a study of medical professionals - has written about the psycho-dynamics of Teach First. For him, the scheme gives rise to "a complex interaction between personal and professional identities". He identifies an "ambivalence" towards the poor status of teaching as well as anxiety about the "capacity to cope in a context in which (participants) have been marketed as the brightest and best". Such anxiety is fuelled further, he believes, by the confusion arising from participants' putative leadership and the "hostility of some teachers towards this, whether real or imagined".

Another Teach First phenomenon, says Dr West, has emerged from certain typical characterstics of participants: high intelligence, creativity and independent-mindedness. Those on the programme will tend to say: "I'll make an impact, but in my own way." But whether this idiosyncratic input is giving rise to a "new professionalism" is less clear. "It's too early to say," says Dr West.

But John Moss, who devised and leads the initial training programme at Canterbury Christ Church, believes Teach First participants present a challenge to traditional notions of professionalism. He is struck by their outlook on working life - in particular their rejection of the notion of a "job for life". Those on the programme, he says, see their careers involving various jobs in which they will make an impact, and they do not hold with the idea of a single vocation.

Dr Moss believes that recruitment campaigns such as those run by the Teacher Training Agency ("everyone remembers a good teacher" and "those who can, teach", for instance) promote an outdated notion of a single-context career which dissuades dynamic and creative graduates from joining the profession. Teacher trainers, he says, must respond in a different way to these able graduates.

Of course, if this argument holds water, it raises questions about rapid turnover among these high-fliers, and the consequent instability and lack of continuity for schools and pupils.

The TTA has already commissioned an evaluation from London Metropolitan University's Institute for Policy Studies in Education. It is hoped that the study will throw light on the impact of the scheme. Whatever the outcome, Teach First has at least provided "an interesting experiment", says Dr Moss.

Few would argue that a struggling profession should close itself off to new ideas, although Teach First might need a more thoroughgoing charm offensive - particularly towards teachers and teacher trainers - before it can sit comfortably alongside the more pedestrian forms of entry into teaching.

Dennis Hayes is the editor of 'The Guide to Key Debates in Education'

(RoutledgeFalmer), to be published next summer

Teach First facts

* 1,300 future graduates applied for the programme

* Teach First made number 63 in 'The Times' Top One Hundred Graduate recruitment list in 2003

* 185 students joined the summer institute at Canterbury Christ Church University College in June 2003

* Of these, 177 participants were appointed in 45 London schools in September 2003

* The majority are from Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College, London

* Most of the graduates involved are training to teach science, maths and modern foreign languages

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