Editorial - Teach Firsters deserve plaudits not suspicion

28th August 2009 at 01:00
Some bright graduates opt for teaching ... so what's the problem exactly?

Everyone thinks it's a wonderful idea. All the political parties back it, the press loves it, business bankrolls it, even those teaching unions that hate change so much that they get jittery when spring segues into summer have come round to it. Teach First, the programme that parachutes remarkable graduates into tough inner-city schools armed with a little bit of teaching practice and a lot of chutzpah, has won near universal acclaim for its role in introducing talent to need (pages 16-17).

Ofsted has observed and prodded it and declared it to be good. Heads are scrambling to employ Teach Firsters in such numbers that the scheme cannot keep up with demand even as record numbers head to the badlands of Birmingham, Manchester and London. Wonder of wonders, those commentators who routinely cough up the word comprehensive in the same way they spit out Brussels, benefit cheats and the Boches have blessed it as a worthy career move.

And yet ... there are murmurs, barely perceptible, of dissent. Who are these gilded youths who have marched into the maintained sector with all the confidence of Victorian missionaries trekking into the Dark Continent, brandishing leadership manuals in place of bibles? Who do they think they are? The proud and the insensitive may have been sifted out, but no amount of humility can completely dispel the accusation implicit in initiatives like this: the old has been found wanting, the new can do better.

A few have hinted - in defiance of the facts - that Teach Firsters are a cheap option, a money-saving gimmick for economising heads. The short time graduates sign up for - two years - riles. What kind of commitment is that? Veterans - and The TES, it has to be admitted - have been known to sneer at the vanity of newcomers who think enthusiasm can succeed where experience has failed. One Teach Firster confessed that she could handle the long hours and the difficult kids. What she found utterly demoralising was the attitude of colleagues who couldn't understand why a bright woman with such prospects would choose to work "here!" Was she mad? School was a place to escape from, a career path that led to a cul-de-sac of frustration.

It is easy to question the motives of high fliers who flit out of schools as soon as they have won their compassionate wings (although 60 per cent now choose to stay). It is easy to brand them elitist. Too easy. Much of this unease is nothing to do with Teach First per se but reflects a fear that teaching is becoming too unfamiliar. There is no longer one path into the profession but several. There is no longer an assumption that people have to commit to teaching for life to make a contribution. There is no longer such a thing as a typical teacher, but many types, some of whom, astonishingly, have forsworn lucrative positions to teach. When teaching is the destination of choice for the brightest and the best, it can no longer be regarded as a safe, second-order career. And for a minority, that prospect is a very threatening one indeed.

Gerard Kelly, Editor E gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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