Teach First soft soap

3rd July 2015 at 01:00

We're hosting some Teach First students in school next month. I don't know much about it but I once heard them called "the Scientologists of the education world". So when our headteacher asked who was free to attend a pre-visit briefing, I eagerly volunteered.

It got off to a disappointing start: there were no meaningful hand-shakes or hypnotic eye contact. The course tutors just talked us through the Teach First experience. The principles behind it are good: who could argue with matching top graduates with children who need them most? There would be an introductory barbecue followed by four days' training before students joined us for a week in school.

"Four days?" cried one teacher. "What can you learn in four days?"

Quite a lot, it turns out, as a tutor reeled off a list of topics that included phonics, PSHE, safeguarding, social development and behaviour management. "It sounds a lot but we find students cope really well," she said. "They're like sponges. They're so hungry for knowledge, they just soak it all up."

The audience was unconvinced. I struggled to see how anyone new to teaching could take on behaviour management of a class after just a few weeks' training. "So let me get this straight," said one of our group. "They come to us for a week, then they get trained at a university without any children around, then in September they're class teachers?"

"Absolutely," the course leader said. "They train while they're doing it - it's totally amazing."

"But what if they find it too hard?" asked one teacher. "How do you help if they're struggling?"

"That's really down to the school," she replied. "We're on call, but once they're teaching the training is done in school and they have a mentor."

"What if the support they're getting in the school isn't enough?" we asked. "And don't primary heads feel it's risky putting an unqualified teacher in a class for a whole year?"

"But they're very hard-working and resilient," the course leader said. "They learn really fast."

She then admitted that quite a few primary schools who host Teach First do so because they're struggling to recruit and retain staff. Possibly not the most supportive environment for a trainee, then.

"I couldn't do it," decided one teacher. "It sounds like I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! Don't lots of them just buckle under the pressure?"

"They do find it pretty tough," the course leader admitted. "We're making a point of reminding them to look after themselves."

This confirms the news last week that Teach First is looking into alleviating the stress of being one of their recruits, but I find such a catapult method of teacher training alarming - part of the current obsession that anything of value in teaching has to be a) new and b) fast-tracked. I hope I'm wrong about Teach Firsters. I hope their legendary sponginess will see them succeed, but I'm yet to be convinced.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

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