Weekend Read: Where next for Teach First?

29th September 2017 at 15:02
Russell Hobby
With new chief executive Russell Hobby at the helm, Tes looks at the future of the teacher trainer that continues to divide opinions

Russell Hobby needs little introduction: he’s a familiar face in the world of education, having served as general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union for seven years.

Most commentators would agree that he built a reputation as an effective operator during that time.  

But now he has a big new challenge on his hands – he’s just started as chief executive of Teach First.

Even though it’s now 15 years old, the teacher trainer continues to provoke strong reactions – both positive and negative.  For its supporters, its parachuting of top graduates into challenging schools has raised standards and revolutionised attitudes to teaching. But its detractors have accused it of offering poor value for money and having a cultish atmosphere.

The departure of former CEO Brett Wigdortz, who founded Teach First in 2002, means the future of the organisation is now more up for grabs than at any point in recent years. So which direction does Hobby plan to take it in?

Teach First decision

Tes meets Hobby for an interview one week into his new job, in a hotel bar during the Labour Party conference in Brighton. As a resident of the city, he jokes he’s just completed the “shortest commute of his career”.

Hobby says he was encouraged to apply for the Teach First job by a revelation he gained as NAHT general secretary. “One of the things I was always banging on about at NAHT was that the most important thing we can do for schools is make sure they get great teachers where they are most needed,” he says. “That’s what Teach First does, so once I realised that I wanted to move on from NAHT…it was a really easy decision.”

After seven years in the thick of education policy – and a previous career working as a management consultant specialising in education – some people might have been inclined to have a go at something else. But Hobby says that was never a serious prospect.

“If getting great teachers where they are most needed is the key task in education, education is the key thing that society has to get right.” He says he hopes to stay in the sector “as long as they’ll have me”.

A different role

While Hobby is an education veteran, he recognises that his role at Teach First will be rather different to his work at NAHT. It will be less about “the lobbying and agitating” and more “solving some of those problems I used to complain about”, he says.

But that’s not to say he will be silent. Having been obliged to give his tuppence worth on every conceivable education issue over the last seven years, one gets the impression Hobby will be more comfortable speaking out than Wigdortz. “If we see something that is getting in the way of getting great teachers where they are needed… we should speak up.”

When Tes interviewed Wigdortz back in January, he admitted his decision to stand down had been influenced by the fact it was not quite the insurgent it once was. Teach First had travelled from an idea at the fringes of education policy to a huge organisation commanding cross-party support – a veritable pillar of the modern educational establishment.

The appointment of Hobby – the personification of a safe pair of hands – suggests that a violent rupture with the past is unlikely. He makes clear that the organisation is not about to veer off into doing something radically different. Its “core work” will continue to be putting talented teachers into challenging schools.

Doing "more of the same" perhaps isn’t as exciting as trying to dream up the next great idea in education policy, but Hobby robustly defends Teach First keeping its eye on the original prize. “We haven’t finished the first job yet, and the first job is the one that really matters,” he says. He believes Teach First still has a unique contribution to make because it possesses a “lever” which other training routes lack – telling teachers where they have to work. He expects Teach First to continue to grow the size of its cohort, with its most urgent challenge to help improve the quality of education outside of London.

Retention and support

However, just because Hobby doesn’t plan to overhaul Teach First’s fundamental model doesn’t mean he hasn’t got a full in-tray. One criticism of the organisation he's keen to respond to is on teacher retention.

Becky Allen, the director of Education Datalab, carried out research into Teach First’s retention last year. “It categorically showed that these teachers were much more likely to leave the classroom in their third year of teaching than those who trained by other routes, which I think people had always suspected,” she tells Tes.

You might expect the boss of Teach First to double down and dismiss criticism about retention. Since the organisation’s inception it has, after all, been implicit in its model – and name – that a career-long commitment is not expected from candidates. But while Hobby insists that Teach First’s retention is “better than the myths allow” (about 60 per cent of participants opt to remain in the classroom after their mandatory two years) he says he’s still bothered by the issue. “Retention is important to me, because if you’ve got these really great people, they’re making that impact in front of the children…you want them there as long as you possibly can.” He says he wants to get teachers to stay for “a few more years”.

Hobby indicates he has no plan to increase the mandatory time period which Teach Firsters have to remain in the profession. Instead one of his top priorities as chief executive is to improve retention by creating conditions in which teachers can “thrive” in schools. This touches on a second criticism of Teach First: that those on the programme are not adequately supported. According to a survey by the National College for Teaching and Leadership last November, Teach First NQTs recorded lower satisfaction with key aspects of their initial teacher training than those on other initial teacher training routes. For example, just 74 per cent of Teach First NQTs rated the quality of their training as seven out of 10 or higher, compared to an average of 81 per cent for all NQTs. Likewise, only 59 per cent rated the support they had received from their school during their training as seven out of 10 or higher, compared to an average of 74 per cent among other NQTs.

He says the challenging schools Teach First operates in, and the “less customery” relationship with teachers which is a corollary of telling them where they have to work, inevitably feeds into the satisfaction figures. That being said, he wants to work with school leaders on line management and workload to reduce levels of burnout among Teach Firsters. But his background at NAHT convinces him that to really solve the workload problem, the government needs to move towards longer-term accountability measures. “I don’t think any school wishes to be collecting more data than it thinks it should or wants teachers marking more than they ought to,” he says. “Why are they doing this? This is something I have been debating for seven years: it’s what our accountability system does.”

Finance and the future

Questions about Teach First’s retention are particularly pressing given the cost of the programme. Louis Coiffait is head of education at the Reform thinktank, which in February published a report questioning Teach First’s value for money. It is the most expensive of the initial teacher training routes, with Teach First entrants making up 7 per cent of postgraduates training to become secondary teachers, but representing 11 per cent of total training costs. “It was founded in the Blair era when everyone was awash with cash,” says Coiffait. “They’ve managed to navigate the period of austerity up to now very well actually, [but] that pressure around value for money is not going away – if anything it’s increasing.”

Hobby says Teach First will seek to use “all of our money as wisely as possible”, but rebuts the notion that the organisation does not offer value. He claims that the unflattering research on Teach First’s costs relative to other routes fails to take account of bursaries (Teach First recruits are not allowed them) and the cost of recruitment and placement into school, which Teach First covers but which schools would otherwise have to pay for.

Russell Hobby is not looking to revolutionise Teach First – he will be seeking to improve retention and the experience of participants, while making the case to government, the education system and wider society that Teach First is still worth their investment. But there is one more way in which Teach First may feel different under his leadership. Coiffait, who used to work for Hobby at NAHT, says his old boss brings a different style to Wigdortz. “I think it will be quite a change for the organisation, because it’s always had a slightly American, slightly cultish vibe about it, which Brett embodied,” he says. That vibe is exemplified by its bombastic annual conference (taking place at Wembley Arena this year), which some observers have compared to a religious revivalist meeting. “Russell is very different to that. He’s less dynamic, more wise,” says Coiffait.

But while he might be a different leader to Wigdortz, Hobby says he has no intention of pouring cold water over Teach First’s characteristic exuberance. “Are we going to be enthusiastic about what we do? Absolutely we are,” he says fervently. “We are asking a large number of young and increasingly less young people to devote significant years of their lives to environments which are going to push them right to their very limits.

“They need to believe in why they’re doing that and they have a right to as well.”

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