We mean business

6th July 2007 at 01:00
As Blair's boy prepares to join hundreds of graduates on the Teach First programme, Nick Morrison looks at its successes and gets first-hand accounts from the people who've taken part

It's been a period of flux in the Blair household. While one member has seen the curtain fall on his premiership, another is embarking on a new chapter that still holds out hope of a promising future.

This summer, the former Prime Minister's second son, Nicky, will join around 300 other graduates on the Teach First programme. So what can he expect from a scheme which aims to attract high flyers into the classroom and marry the worlds of education and business? And will he come to the same conclusion about it as his dad, who is on record as describing Teach First as an "excellent initiative"?

Bronwen Walker is in a better position to know than most. Three years ago she was a politics student at Bristol University and now she is head of history at Clapton Girls' Technology College in east London. She had been considering a career in the public sector, but had not settled on teaching, until Teach First came along.

"I don't think I would have done a PGCE, but what I liked about Teach First was you get thrown in straight away. It was also an opportunity to get paid to work in the public sector while being trained in business," says Bronwen, 25.

Along with about 200 other graduates, Bronwen spent six weeks at Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent. Some veteran teachers have criticised Teach First, saying that it cannot prepare new staff as adequately as a PGCE.

But Bronwen says she found the training pretty intensive, with 14-hour days combining subject studies and professional studies. Then the new term started.

"It is always a culture shock when you start a new job," she says. "But I don't think it was any more scary than any other graduate scheme, and looking back I recognise what a great learning curve it was for me."

It is the link with the commercial sector that marks Teach First out from other graduate training programmes. For Bronwen, this has seen her gain a diploma in the foundations of business leadership from the Tanaka Business School, based at Imperial College London, as well as studying advertising and marketing techniques. In her second year, she had coaching on the role of non governmental organisations.

"You do a lot of leadership exercises and look at what makes a good leader, and everything you learn is very transferable and is a fantastic complement to what I have learned through teaching," she says.

Teach First began in London but has since spread to greater Manchester and Birmingham. James Tiplady was one of the first Manchester cohort and is now coming to the end of his first year on the programme, teaching business and ICT at Hartshead Sports College in Ashton-under-Lyme, Tameside.

Like Bronwen, James considered a career in teaching while at university, in his case Exeter, but was reluctant to do a PGCE. Also like Bronwen, he was attracted to Teach First by the business element.

"It was the chance to build transferable skills that I could use outside the classroom," he says. "Going almost straight into the classroom has also given me the confidence to stand up and talk in front of groups of people."

All being well, James, 22, will have qualified teacher status by the end of this school year, although he has not decided whether to continue in education. This summer he will spend three weeks on an internship with a private sector IT firm. Next year Hartshead will close, reopening as an academy, and James sees that as an opportunity to assess his next move.

He says: "Teaching was always something I thought would come at the end of my career, but this has definitely changed my perspective on education. I'm keeping my options open at the moment."

Melissa Parsey, also 22, had steered away from considering a career in teaching while at Durham University, but saw Teach First as providing a chance to explore other opportunities in the future.

"I was not going into teaching so much as going into the programme, but it has made me appreciate teaching much more. It has given me a direction that I was lacking and it opens up so many fantastic possibilities."

Melissa, who teaches RE and citizenship at Wembley High Technology College in north London, has also coached the Year 7 netball team to become "the best netball team in Brent," and surprised herself along the way. "I would never have thought I would be that sort of person," she says.

She hasn't yet decided whether to continue in the classroom, although her experience has given her a new perspective on teaching. "It has opened up a whole new side of teaching I had never considered, and whatever happens, I know I will have done something worthwhile, and I don't think I would have got that in many other places."

Bronwen says she had initially planned to stay in the classroom for a couple of years before moving on, but now has the taste for teaching. "I thought I would go into business or law, but now I don't think I would get the energy I get from teaching anywhere else," she says.

"Maybe when I'm 40 I might think about a change of career, but now I'm very much focused on education. *

First of its kind

Teach First was set up after business organisations London First and Business in the Community approached a firm of management consultants to look at how to improve pupil performance. The result was a programme that aimed to combine fast-track teacher training with developing business and leadership skills.

Inspired by the Teach for America scheme, which has been running in the US since 1990, Teach First launched in Britain in July 2002, with the first cohort recruited over the following 10 months.

After two preparatory weeks in different schools, the recruits take a six-week course at Canterbury Christ Church University, with their food and accommodation paid for, before going into schools for their newly qualified teacher year. In their second year on the programme, Teach First participants have the opportunity to work with volunteer coaches on areas including marketing, law and leadership.

"The core aim is to get graduates who would not normally go into teaching to spend at least two years, and hopefully more, in challenging inner-city schools," says Brett Wigdortz, Teach First chief executive. "We look for people who we think could successfully teach after six weeks' training, and people who could be leaders in whatever field they go into.

"We look for great communication skills, humility, empathy, resilience, respect and leadership skills."

Around 2,000 people applied for the 300 places available this year. Brett says many of these will not be sure they want to stay in teaching, but want to keep their options open.

One criticism levelled at Teach First is that once participants have picked up the skills they want they will leave education and put their training to use in other fields, but Brett says he has no problem with that. The programme asks for a two-year commitment, and around half so far have stayed on after two years. Among the Teach First alumni are 100 heads of department and eight assistant heads.

"There are half who leave and go into the business world, but our philosophy is that is not a bad thing. Some will go back into teaching at a later date," Brett adds.

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