Neil Jones’ Year 10 students gave him a round of applause at the end of his maths lesson last week.
It wasn’t his explanation of indices that won the admiration of the 14-year-olds of Priory Community School in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset. The pupils clapped him because Mr Jones, a former helicopter engineer in the Royal Navy, had just graduated from the Troops to Teachers scheme.
It was a welcome piece of recognition for the participants of the government training initiative. Mr Jones and the other 27 teachers who have completed the scheme feel that it has come in for unfair criticism because of their military backgrounds.
They worry that their decision to become teachers has sometimes been overshadowed by their earlier careers.
“People thought it was going to be all about the Army coming in and shouting at kids,” Mr Jones says. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
‘Treated with suspicion’
The premise of the scheme, first proposed by the Conservatives in opposition in 2008, was straightforward – bring the talents of motivated men and women into schools and fulfil the nation’s military covenant by supporting ex-service personnel in civilian life.
But once Troops to Teachers became official government policy, Department for Education rhetoric about the advantages of military discipline quickly raised some teachers’ hackles. Many viewed it as an easy way of grabbing headlines, rather than a real solution to the looming teacher shortages.
Colin Grimes – who was once an aerospace systems manager for the RAF and is now a Year 4 teacher at Burnside Primary School in Cramlington, Northumberland thanks to the Troops to Teachers scheme – believes that the earliest publicity tended to confuse the programme with an extension of the school Combined Cadet Force.
And he says that this misconception about the scheme has lingered – to the extent that some trainees from the second Troops to Teachers cohort are “not mentioning their route into teaching to any prospective employers because of the adverse publicity”.
“We want to be seen as teachers rather than ex-servicemen,” Mr Grimes explains. “It’s the whole thing about did we get a leg-up into the profession [the two-year schools-based teacher training programme is for non-graduates]: possibly, but I felt we’ve earned it.”
Mr Grimes has had experience of the prejudices that a military background can trigger in people. “At an interview for a school, I got told that I ‘couldn’t shout at the pupils like recruits’,” he says. “My reply to that headteacher was that I didn’t want to work in her school if she was prepared to accept that stereotypical view of service people.
“I had to rely on the goodwill of the school that I was a governor at to get me started on the course. I am an ex-serviceman, but now I’m a schoolteacher and that is what I want to be judged on.”
Tim Rose, assistant head of the School of Education at the University of Brighton, which runs the Troops to Teachers programme, says that the school matching process proved “quite tricky” at first.
“But that is not the case now,” he says. “I have 150 schools who have had one of our trainees and almost exclusively they ask for more. It is quite a remarkable programme.
“Generalising, the characteristics of this group are about this notion of service. They are motivated and have a can-do attitude.”
Back in Weston-super-Mare, Neville Coles, the principal of Priory Community School, is just happy to have been able to find a maths teacher.
“Programmes like Troops to Teachers are creative ways [of recruitment], particularly for getting in maths and science teachers,” he says. “For me, I can see a guy who has come to us under the scheme who has the right approach, the right mindset and is going the extra mile.”
That “guy” – Mr Jones – knew he wanted to go into teaching even before the scheme came along. “I’d already moved into engineering training,” he says. “I liked sharing knowledge; when you are watching what students do and they have that lightbulb moment when you have made a connection.”
For his students, it is Mr Jones’ ability to explain maths that is important. “His attitude fits quite well with teaching. He helps a lot, but he is really fun,” says Reece Coombes, 14, one of Mr Jones’ pupils.
Isabella Caine, also 14, sees her teacher’s military background as an asset. “It does help him gain control of the class,” she says. “When Mr Jones counts down from three, you know you have to be quiet by one. But he never shouts or tells us off.”
Now 43, Mr Jones left school at 16 to join the Navy. It was the “lure of the sea” that got him, he explains. But all services personnel know that it is a job for young people.
“I have got a pension and don’t need to work,” he says. “I choose to do this because I want to do it. My ambition is to be a head of maths.
“But teaching is not at all an easy path. If someone wants to teach, I’d say that they need to try it first. If it’s for you, you’ll know straight away, and if it’s not for you, you’ll know straight away.
“The government has got 25 years out of me with one job. They’ll probably get 25 years with another.”
From conflict to the classroom
The Troops to Teachers scheme started in January 2014 with 41 trainees
Nine people dropped out during the two-year course
To date, 28 have received qualified teacher status. One is still working toward QTS and two trainees plan to rejoin their training in the coming months
A further 52 trainees were taken on in September 2014 and another 62 in September 2015