What a 'niche' way into teaching

4th September 2009 at 01:00
The controversial Teach First programme in England, which fast-tracks graduates into teaching, is continuing its unstoppable rise. Kerra Maddern reports

A total of 487 young people, the class of 2009, are spending 12 hours a day for six weeks learning the basics at Canterbury Christ Church University before being shipped out to secondaries in the Midlands, London and the north of England this month.

The corporate-backed training programme, loved by the financial world, the Government and headteachers desperate to fill vacancies in their challenging schools, has always attracted criticism, in particular the elite nature of the course.

Some question the dedication of Teach First "participants" as they are known - only 60 per cent stay in the classroom after the contracted two years of teaching, with the option of joining high-earning industries a bigger draw for the others. But heads warm to their enthusiasm.

Others are uncomfortable with the "mission"-led training. There's a major focus on explaining deprivation to the mostly well-heeled recruits. For example, watching a Panorama film on urban poverty is one of the participants' first tasks. The aim is to teach them about the lives of the children they will be teaching, almost as if they are from a different world.

But according to Brett Wigdortz, Teach First chief executive: "There should be lots of different routes into teaching; all children are not taught in the same way, so why can't teachers be trained in different ways? We don't think this is the best way into teaching - it's a niche way."

He suggests that the Teach First selection criteria of "humility and respect" prevent anyone who might not have the right attitude about deprivation getting on the course. This is the main reason, he says, why scores of Oxbridge applicants are unsuccessful.

Charlotte McCormick was told to expect "negative vibes" when she started work in a new academy in south London two years ago. "In the end, I didn't have any problems - other teachers can't argue with hard work," she says. "It's mind-blowing the amount of opportunities you get through Teach First."

Eileen Atherfold taught in Newham, east London, and was won over by Teach First at an early stage. She acted as a school-based mentor before starting work as a tutor on this summer's training burst. "Teach First participants pick things up so quickly and, because of the support available, they get direct feedback," she says. "The calibre of the people is very good."

Andrew Peterson, a Canterbury Christ Church lecturer, agrees. "They are very keen to learn and, most importantly, are aware of their limitations and the need to know more," he says.

Steve Costello found himself head of sixth form and head of department within two years of starting Teach First - both failing areas in his school. He then went to work in a law firm and now works as a tutor on the course, as well as running a charity for deprived children.

"Teach First works when you act in partnership with the school," he says. "I learned a lot from the teachers. You do get given a lot of responsibility and you get used to this. A lot of people come back to teaching after switching to business because they find their new job involves a lot of menial tasks."

The six-week course is intense, but nobody expects Teach First participants to be fully trained when they first arrive in schools, says Bonnie Adcock, a Birmingham graduate about to start work in a south London school.

Participants say traditional training programmes can learn lessons from Teach First, especially the amount of time they are able to spend with tutors, even when they transfer to schools. They are seen every fortnight. The residential is also successful, creating a sense of purpose.

The residential basis, and further training for another two years, makes it a comparatively expensive way to bring young people into the profession. But the Government says Teach First should grow and, by 2013, 850 new teachers will be trained this way. At the same time, training numbers on other courses are being cut because there is no longer a great need for new teachers.

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