Teach First recruits are going back to their roots
For a decade, the charity Teach First has placed "exceptional graduates" in the country's most challenging schools to raise the aspirations of children from poor homes.
Now, figures collated for the first time show that a surprising proportion of Teach First recruits come from similar backgrounds: almost a quarter of those joining the scheme this year were themselves once eligible for free school meals or the education maintenance allowance (EMA).
Among them will be Naomi Townsend, who was inspired to sign up by the example of her teachers at Heath Park Business and Enterprise College in Wolverhampton. Despite personal difficulties - her mother died when she was just 15 - and being eligible for free school meals, she won a place to study music at the University of York.
"What got me through was the support from my teachers," said Ms Townsend, who will start her teaching career in a London school next month. "Not many of us went to university but teachers pushed us to go. I know how much of a challenge it is to come from a free school meals background, and if I've done it then any child I teach can do it.
"I was the first person in my family to go to university. It was expensive and far away; the odds were against me. Hopefully I can be that same push to the pupils that I teach. I want to work in schools where I can make a difference."
In England, 18.2 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals, according to Department for Education figures from January. Among those who have just begun the six weeks of training that Teach First participants receive before joining a school, that figure is 23.6 per cent. This is the first time that Teach First has asked its recruits for details of whether or not they were once entitled to free school meals or the EMA.
The survey also showed that 19 per cent of the nearly 1,000 graduates who signed up this year attended fee-paying schools, down from 27 per cent two years ago.
About three-quarters of Teach First trainees each year come from Russell Group universities, although the organisation this year recruited from 66 institutions, up from 16 in 2003. An evaluation of the impact of Teach First after its first decade said it would have been "perverse" to ignore the potential of "first-in-a-family graduates" who gain degrees from other universities.
Adam Sidway, who went to Crestwood School in Dudley, West Midlands, is another of this year's recruits who was once eligible for free school meals. He went on to gain a degree and a master's in English literature from the University of Birmingham. "I want to open doors for pupils," he said. "At my school, university wasn't on the agenda for everyone. Teachers prioritised learning and a good education, but some pupils fell by the wayside.
"My mum was a single parent and she valued education and had high aspirations for me. For a lot of children I will teach, this support network might not be there."
Jonathan Gregory, another of this year's Teach First cohort, studied natural sciences at the University of Cambridge after attending a state school in southeast London. "I think I will bring to the classroom an understanding of the challenging lives some children lead, which will be really useful," he said.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
In 2001, London First, a consortium of the capital's leading employers and the charity Business in the Community, commissioned a report on what business could do to contribute to the improvement of London's schools.
It proposed a programme to recruit and train the best and brightest graduates and place them for at least two years in disadvantaged and underperforming schools.
The scheme was first called Teach for London; the Teach First programme began in 2002. Beloved by politicians, it has grown from 186 recruits in 2003 to 997 this year.