Second can be best

3rd February 2012 at 00:00

How odd. There are tens of thousands of extraordinarily able and committed teachers waiting in the wings and desperate to start. They would bring passion, experience and energy not only to the classroom but also into the co-curricular lives of schools. We need to liberate them to enter the profession, and urgently. Nothing less than a mass Teach Second programme must be adopted urgently in Britain.

I am a Teach Second product. I did not become a teacher until I was 30. After finishing as an undergraduate, I worked for a multinational, directed plays, wrote books and completed a doctorate. I got those ambitions out of my system, and I am convinced that I am immeasurably a better teacher for it, and that my students have benefited too.

Schooluniversityschool is still the common pattern for most teachers. In some cases it works admirably, but not all. What of teachers in their forties and fifties who run out of steam? Joining the profession can easily be all too automatic. We can become much better people if, in our twenties and even thirties or forties, we pursue our interests in the world beyond school. We can then return knowing why we want to teach, with a wealth of experience and self-confidence.

Throughout my teaching career, and in particular as a head, I have encouraged would-be teachers to go off into the world and become teachers later. I have always looked kindly on those who want to join the profession at 30, 40 or even 50. I think of Charlie, who was in my upper-sixth politics set in the 1980s, and who is having a successful first year in teaching, having spent his whole career until now in the oil industry; or Mark, who had a room next to mine at university, and who joined the profession in his late forties after a career as a chemist; or Ed, our head of economics, who spent 10 years in the City. Peter Hyman, who worked in Tony Blair's No 10, is now a deputy head and is planning to set up his own free school. How much better would politics be, incidentally, if more MPs were to have had a track record of success in other professions, as opposed to joining as a political aide straight after university? What do they truly know of the world?

The army is a profession full of potentially outstanding teachers who could profoundly enrich the lives of schools. Those who have served their country have a deep understanding about standards, commitment and loyalty, and are often exceptional exemplars for students as well as for teachers. Industry and other professions are equally full of people with the potential to become great teachers.

No career is more rewarding than teaching. Most people I know harbour a desire to be in a profession that is worthwhile, is emotionally rewarding, and imparts a deep sense of meaning to their lives. We should be doing everything we can to make Teach Second a reality. Teach First has set an outstanding precedent. Teach Second, a very different proposition, must draw on that inspiration.

We need to launch Teach Second within the next 12 to 15 months. It is not only about increasing numbers and finding those with the grit to stay in the profession. It is about having remarkable people joining schools who can offer a breadth of experience which will profoundly enrich children's lives for ever. There is not a moment to lose.

Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington College.

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