A class of their own? The rise and rise of the Teach First graduates

28th August 2009 at 01:00
The ultra fast-track training programme has supporters in high places, but its elite focus has put a few noses out of joint, reports Kerra Maddern

They are picked to be the best of the best, the brightest graduates with the potential to be hand crafted into elite teachers in little more than a month - and there are now more of them than ever.

The past few years have seen the almost unstoppable rise of Teach First, the corporate-backed training programme loved by the financial world, the Government and headteachers desperate to fill vacancies in their challenging schools.

A total of 487 young people, the class of 2009, are now spending 12 hours a day for six weeks learning the basics at Canterbury Christ Church University before being shipped out to secondaries in the Midlands, London and the North this September. The TES took the opportunity to join them and find out just how it worked.

The speed of their introduction to education has always attracted criticism, as has the elite nature of the course. Others question the dedication of Teach First "participants" as they are known - only 60 per cent stay in the classroom after the contracted two years of teaching, with the option of joining high-earning industries a bigger draw for the others.

Witnessing the "mission"-led training could make many feel uncomfortable - there's a major focus on explaining deprivation to the mostly well-heeled recruits. For example, watching a Panorama film on urban poverty is one of the participants' first tasks.

The aim is to teach them about the lives of the children they will be teaching, almost as if they are from a different world. Teach First is popular with graduates because it is billed as a challenge - more exciting and challenging than other routes into teaching.

However, this attitude - and others - does throw up a host of sometimes uncomfortable questions. Can only the privileged help those growing up in our cities? Is this insulting to those traditionally trained teachers who are already making a difference? And should pupils in challenging schools be portrayed as behaving so differently?

Brett Wigdortz, Teach First chief executive, is adept at answering much of this kind of criticism. "There should be lots of different routes into teaching; all children are not taught in the same way, so why can't teachers be trained in different ways?" he says.

"We don't think this is the best way into teaching - it's a niche way. There's nothing wrong with collaboration to get the best professionals in schools. Teaching is such a difficult job and what we are asking the participants to do is so hard. The reason we get them to do so much work is that the price of success is so great."

Open arms may not be forthcoming

But a scheme designed for the academic elite is bound to cause chatter when participants arrive in schools, and they are warned that not everyone will welcome them.

According to Mr Wigdortz, the Teach First selection criteria of "humility and respect" prevents anyone who might not have the right attitude about deprivation getting on the course. This is the main reason, he says, why scores of Oxbridge applicants are unsuccessful.

Charlotte McCormick was told to expect "negative vibes" when she started work in a new academy in south London two years ago. She was educated in the private sector but the newly elected president of this year's participants wanted to "give something back".

"In the end, I didn't have any problems - other teachers can't argue with hard work," she says. "It's mind-blowing the amount of opportunities you get through Teach First."

It is not clear how many Teach First participants went to independent schools, but anecdotally it seems to be a higher proportion than other routes into teaching. Most come from Oxbridge or Russell Group universities, but others are from lesser-regarded universities.

With its residential basis, and further training for another two years, it is a comparatively expensive way to bring young people into the profession. But the Government says Teach First should grow, and by 2013, 850 new teachers will be trained this way. At the same time, training numbers on other courses are being cut because there is no longer a great need for new teachers. So why is a route into teaching designed to attract people not fully committed to the profession expanding?

Mr Wigdortz says Teach First's growth is purely fuelled by demand, but some years he cannot find places for all his participants. "In most subjects we have three or four times the requests for teachers than we can place, but there are occasionally a few exceptions for other reasons," he says.

Everyone involved in the Teach First programme says headteachers are simply grateful for any bright graduates they can place in their secondaries and that in many cases the programme solves major recruitment problems.

Leap of faith

But taking part is undoubtedly a leap of faith for many schools. They are not able to interview participants for logistical reasons, only to specify which subject specialists they want. They are only sent a CV to approve. In most years, headteachers refuse to take one or two participants after meeting them for the first time during the six-week summer school.

Eileen Atherfold taught in Newham, east London, and was won over by Teach First at an early stage. She acted as a school-based mentor before starting work as a tutor on this summer's training burst.

"Teach First participants pick things up so quickly and because of the support available they get direct feedback," she says. "The calibre of the people is very good."

Headteachers say they like the enthusiasm of Teach First trainees, and their willingness to organise out-of-school activities.

Steve Costello found himself head of sixth form and head of department within two years of starting Teach First - both failing areas in his school. He then went to work in a law firm and now works as a tutor on the course as well as running a charity for deprived children.

"Teach First works when you act in partnership with the school. I learnt a lot from the teachers," he says.

"You do get given a lot of responsibility and you get used to this. A lot of people come back to teaching after switching to business because they find their new job involves a lot of menial tasks."

Most of this year's participants chose to go down the Teach First route not just for the corporate opportunities, but because it is perceived as faster. They even wear business clothes during the summer residential.

The feeling is mutual. Teach First tutors view their new charges as a special group, able to cope with the frantic pace of the course.

"I wouldn't want this to seem as if I'm criticising other students, but Teach First groups tend to take in things incredibly quickly," says Debs Robinson, who is teaching the Midlands participants in professional studies as well as PGCE students the rest of the year.

Andrew Peterson, a Canterbury Christ Church lecturer, agrees. "They are very keen to learn, and most importantly are aware of their limitations and the need to know more," he says. "Worryingly, many of the participants also had a poor opinion of the PGCE - although it's not clear where they got it from."

Intense course, but support is available

There can be little doubt, however, that the Teach First six-week course is intense. "It's a lot harder than I thought it would be, but there's so much support," says Bonnie Adcock, a Birmingham graduate about to start work in a south London school.

Nobody claims that Teach First participants are fully trained when they first arrive in schools, she says. The summer school only gives a "grounding". "They can't learn everything they need to know about teaching," Ms Adcock says.

But there must be lessons PGCE tutors can learn from Teach First. One, the participants say, is the amount of time they are able to spend with tutors, even when they transfer to schools. They are seen every fortnight. The residential is also successful, creating a sense of purpose.

There is no doubt that bright, enthusiastic young people are always an asset to the teaching profession. But with the Training and Development Agency for Schools increasingly targeting top graduates in their recruitment campaigns, and applications for courses booming, is there still the need for an elite route?

Will any government (red or blue) that puts social mobility high on the agenda and criticises the high numbers of private school pupils in top professions be able to defend the use of people from a different class to turn around challenging schools?

With support for Teach First showing no signs of weakening, it seems this is an exception that the policymakers may be prepared to make.

How Teach First works

Students are assessed by a graduate recruitment company. They then spend six weeks at the Summer Institute before arriving in schools in September.

During the first week they are at a university local to their region. The second week is spent at a school and the third at the secondary they will be teaching in.

They then go to Canterbury Christ Church University for weeks four to six, where they learn about classroom management, assessment, resources, special educational needs, social justice, diversity and government policy. They are organised into groups of 20 with others who will be working in their region.

They qualify and pass their NQT year within 13 months, less than the 22 it takes PGCE students.

When in school their teaching time is 10 per cent less than newly qualified teachers. They are employed by the school.

All participants make a commitment to be in their training schools for two years - 90 per cent manage this. During their second year they do finance and marketing courses at the Imperial College of Business in London.

They can now also do a Teach First masters course, which takes three years, as well as internships during their summer holidays.

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