'The success of Teach First points towards a major shift in what society considers an aspirational career'

The tectonic plates are moving in the workforce, writes former schools minister Jim Knight, and the consequences will be fascinating

Jim Knight

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Yesterday I was lucky enough to spend the day with Teach First. Lucky, because it meant I could go to work by boat to their offices in London Bridge; lucky, because it was fascinating to be a judge for their Innovation Awards; and lucky, because it is always exciting to be working around such smart young people.


I’ve known Teach First since their early days and enjoyed working with them as their sponsoring minister. I am a big fan, although I do have some worries, such as whether they can sustain their quality as they continue to grow.


But the most striking thing is always what a powerful network it is – of very clever confident people. Their alumni, known as their "ambassadors", are well connected with each other and are an impressive force. The Innovation Awards attempts to harness the calibre of these individuals as they seek to address the problems they see through social enterprise.


One interesting conversation yesterday was around the growth of other programmes on the same model. The Frontline scheme, for example, is designed to attract high-achieving graduates into children's social work. There are now also others for the police and mental-health social workers.


What we are seeing is the growth of public sector jobs as attractive graduate routes out of top universities. 


But there is then the issue of retention. We are used to thinking that losing as much as 50 per cent from these professions is an expensive waste. This is a credible argument but there is another way of looking at it.  


When I see how impressive these ambassadors are, it seems obvious to me that they will go on to take senior positions in business, in charities and in politics. If so, isn’t it a great thing that they have a few years experience in teaching, social work or crime prevention? How long before the first Teach Firster joins the cabinet or is appointed governor of the Bank of England? And wouldn’t that give a powerful social context to that work?


This then made me reflect on other conversations I have had this week.


In one I was told by the head of a sector skills council that relations had never been so bad between her sector and the government, in part caused by the apprenticeship levy. But, by the same token, she said many companies in her sector were now rebalancing their recruitment away from graduates and towards apprentices because of the levy.


I checked this with senior executives from two multinational companies. They confirmed this and one explained their company had recently audited their talent progression and found a much better return from investing in apprentices than graduates. Growing your own talent works.


Putting these two thoughts together, I end up wondering whether we could be moving towards a new paradigm in which elite graduates increasingly take up public sector roles, while the private sector turns away from universities as filters of talent?  


The consequences are fascinating in terms of what we think about aspirational careers and the best routes into them. Another reason for education to keep a careful eye on labour market trends.


Jim Knight is TES Global's chief education adviser

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Jim Knight

Lord Knight is chief education adviser to TES's parent company TES Global, and a former minister of state for schools 

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