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Ready for anything

There's fast-track and then there's Teach First. The pioneering scheme that places top graduates in tough schools with a minimum of training is branching out, reports Wendy Wallace

You're in your early twenties, you've just graduated from Oxford with a 2:1 in PPE. What's your next move? Politics, the media, a City bank? How about two years in a London comprehensive where 50 per cent of the kids are on free school meals? John Rendel chose the latter and has no regrets.

Mr Rendel was one of the earliest recruits to Teach First, the charity that places top graduates in London state schools, when it launched in 2003.

That first cohort of 165 high-fliers was reunited last Friday night on the 23rd floor of London's Shell Centre for a graduation ceremony that had been postponed because of the July bombings. Amid speeches and much networking, a congratulatory message from Prince Charles was read out, thanking them for their "contribution to those in our society who need it most".

About half of this elite group are staying on in teaching. The programme - which is funded by donations from businesses such as Shell as well as government grants - will expand into Manchester in September 2006, with Liverpool, Birmingham, Nottingham and Leeds due to follow; eventually Teach First hopes to place up to 400 graduates in challenging secondary schools every year.

The scheme promised to transform troubled schools and has been likened by its critics to the church sending missionaries to "civilise" the rough edges of society. But it has won the support of heads such as Sally Coates of Sacred Heart secondary school in Southwark (see below), where three Teach First graduates, including John Rendel, began two years ago.

"Transform is too strong a word," she says. "The school has to invest a lot of time, but they have all been excellent teachers, and certainly have added to Sacred Heart's success."

Inspired by its American counterpart Teach for America, Teach First aims to give high-achieving graduates skills and experiences that will transfer from the classroom to other careers; the idea being that, if you can manage and motivate a class of underperforming teenagers, then you can do just about anything.

Candidates undergo six weeks' training during the summer - two weeks in their destination school and four at Christ Church University in Canterbury - and are then supported by in-school mentors, ongoing training from Christ Church and a business "coach". Alongside their teaching experience, they take part in the Foundations of Leadership course at Imperial College London.

More than 1,000 graduates applied to join this year; fewer than 200 were successful, despite the fact that Teach First had funding for 250. Although applicants must have a 2:1 degree or better, and 40 per cent come from Oxbridge or Imperial College, academic excellence is not the key criterion.

Among the competencies they must demonstrate are "humility", "empathy" and - newly added to the Teach First list - "resilience". "The people having the most difficulty were people who had never failed at anything before in their lives," says Teach First chief executive officer Brett Wigdortz, who was raised in New Jersey by a family of teachers and is the originator of the London scheme.

Although successful candidates must display leadership potential, they are warned not to be too precocious with senior management. "We tell them they are leading in the classroom and through extracurricular activities," says Mr Wigdortz. "We do realise there is a danger of people going in and going crazy; we look for humility."

Given that Teach First invests around pound;7,000 of training and support in each candidate, should a graduate with a good degree and a desire to work in the inner city bother any more with the PGCE? "We never want to recruit more than 2 per cent of incoming NQTs, or 1 per cent of graduates," says Mr Wigdortz. "We want to remain an aspirational programme."

Teach First graduates become "ambassadors" for the scheme and are expected to carry on contributing to inner-city schools as governors, guest teachers, or as mentors to children or new Teach First entrants, regardless of their ultimate career path. "This is not a two-year programme but a lifetime movement," says Mr Wigdortz. "Our goal is that all of them in some way stay involved with challenging schools."

John Rendel

Year 7 students pour into a classroom at Sacred Heart voluntary-aided RC school in Camberwell, where 24-year-old John Rendel is waiting for them, in a dark suit and a tie covered in mathematical equations. "Hi guys, come in quietly," he says. "Get your stuff out as quickly as possible."

The Oxford graduate in politics, philosophy and economics communicates an enthusiasm for basic maths - "Any triangle you can make, the angles inside them add up to 180 degrees. I happen to think that is amazing" - and the class works well. Twelve-year-old Keway Jallow says she likes Mr Rendel because he is "jokes" (funny). The students are jokes, too. When he told them he was 50 years old, one replied: "Nah, sir. None of us think you're more than 40."

Mr Rendel, son of the former Liberal Democrat MP for Newbury, David Rendel, had taught English in Nepal in his gap year before university. When he heard about Teach First, he was immediately interested. "It sounded perfect. I could work in an area where I thought I was helping, and be in a stronger position to enter the job market."

Like most Teach First candidates, he struggled when he found himself in front of classes in autumn 2003 after just six weeks of training. "For the first six months, I didn't feel properly relaxed or happy," he says. "I knew the subject matter, but I didn't have the tools and strategies I needed to get on top of more difficult classes." Dealing with colleagues was also a challenge. "If you want to get on with people, the last thing you should do is say you're a Teach First teacher." He was perceived as the "new, posh boy", but he believes that the three first-wave Teach First candidates at Sacred Heart have now proved themselves. "We all had the humility to try not to annoy anybody."

Mr Rendel, who attended a Newbury comprehensive, insists that he felt a greater culture shock on arrival at New College, Oxford, than when he joined Sacred Heart. "I regard myself as an inverse snob," he says. "The one thing I did notice was the oppressive 'whoosh' of the kids' noise in the corridors."

Although it serves a poor part of south London, Sacred Heart gets good academic results - around 70 per cent of GCSE candidates achieve five A*-Cs - and is described by Ofsted as "highly effective". Mr Rendel says the school "naturally creates high expectations" and that its "amazing schemes of work and department procedures" have reduced stress and helped him become a better teacher.

Teach First candidates are expected to bring more than expertise in a subject. John Rendel, who was chosen to speak at the graduation ceremony, used his connections to persuade Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy to come into school to take a lesson. Last term he went with children from his class to see The Far Pavilions, and then took them backstage to meet a friend who had a leading role in the production. Some children didn't go because their parents could not afford the pound;11 ticket; many children had little idea what a musical was about.

He has learned, too. "You finish at Oxford and everyone thinks 'the world is my oyster'," he says. "I came here and thought, 'I'm failing now'. That made me stronger. You realise that you have to keep proving yourself in life." Having attained qualified teacher status, Mr Rendel is leaving (the other two Teach First staff are staying on at Sacred Heart) to build secondary schools for children in Uganda, through a charity he has started called Promoting Equality in African Schools.

After completing fundraising for the project, he travels to Uganda in November, where he will be working with another Teach First graduate. "It's the only thing I want to do at the minute," he says. "I love being my own boss and I'm going to lead this thing." He believes the dichotomy between the worlds of business and public sector or charitable work is a false one.

"There are a lot of people in business who want to help make a difference."

Katherine Pothecary

Despite having a mother who was a special needs teacher, 23-year-old Katherine Pothecary had never considered teaching as a career. She did five A-levels at her private school, Hereford Cathedral school, followed by a degree in natural sciences at University College London. "I was fully intending to do the law conversion," she says. "I saw law as engaging my brain in an analytical way."

During the "milk round" of careers presentations, she was impressed by Teach First. "Every other presentation was fairly 'same old, same old'," she says. "Teach First sounded as if they had a purpose and a goal. It was hands on, in some way influencing the world for the better."

Her Teach First peers were, she says, "amazing. I was incredibly intimidated by the levels of articulateness and confidence in that room."

After completing her training at Christ Church University she started teaching science at Leytonstone school in 2003, and immediately made her first mistake, introducing herself to children as "Katherine". She says the question posed by the Teach First experiment is: just because someone is a good learner themself, does it mean they'll survive as a teacher? "Miss" Pothecary survived and, says her mentor at Leytonstone school, Terry Bellis, deserves much of the credit. "She has believed in us right from the beginning." But it wasn't always easy. "You almost get broken down, to be built back up again," says Ms Pothecary. "I feel much stronger now for the fact that I'm a teacher."

She has decided to stay in the profession - "I spend my days with lively young people, hopefully enthusing them about science; I don't have to sit behind a desk; and there are so many opportunities that go with it" - and this term started as head of key stage 5 science at Quintin Kynaston school in Westminster, another Teach First school. "I'm loving it," she says. "It feels like a natural progression; I've had enough time to become a good teacher, I hope, and Teach First has always made us think about the leadership side of thing."

Her friends - at least the "lawyers, bankers and medics" among them - still think she's mad, she says. "Challenging schools are quite far removed from the backgrounds a lot of my friends have come from."

David Lake

When he joined Teach First two years ago, David Lake had a master's degree in French translation but no clear idea what he wanted to do with it. "I had been looking (for a job) but nothing sounded that interesting," says the 28-year-old. Teach First appealed, and he was placed at Forest Gate school in east London, teaching French and Spanish.

A former grammar school student from Ilford, Essex, and graduate of London University, he was initially shocked by life at the school. "It was so far removed from what I remembered: the behaviour, the way you're expected to teach. My teachers would start talking at you, you would write things down and that would be it, basically. Here, we were expected to get to grips with different learning styles, peer assessment, making lessons interactive. The more I read, and put things into practice, the more I saw the value of it."

David Lake was the only Spanish teacher at the school. He used to dread certain classes, but got on well with his students. "I know now it was maybe something I was doing wrong, not necessarily them." Fellow teachers as well as his head of department at Forest Gate, head of studies and Teach First mentor all helped him to become competent, he says. "I had people who knew the best advice to give."

He found Forest Gate a "dynamic" but demanding environment. "My school worked hard to make things better, for students and teachers. If you were doing similar things in the private sector you would have a lot more support and you would not have such a deluge of stuff being thrown at you all the time. That's what makes it so tough."

Despite being told by colleagues that he is a natural teacher, Mr Lake is moving to the private sector, working for Barclays on its leadership programme. Initially, he will be earning less than if he had stayed on as a language teacher, with the associated golden hello.

He says his teaching experience helped him to get the job; required at interview to show competencies in teamwork, overcoming obstacles and achieving goals, he drew heavily on teaching. "I have a strong belief that most of the stuff you do is built on relationships and that's what is going to help me in the future: having been exposed to a massive diversity of people."

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