Whispers from Westminster

29th July 2016 at 00:00
Teach First changes lives beyond the classroom

I’ve been in Leeds, attending the “management consultancy graduate training, class of 2018-19”. Or to give it its proper name, Teach First Summer Institute 2016.

It’s an absolutely massive event. This year, almost 4,500 current and former participants and various hangers on like me attended. The two-day conference hosted 270 fringe sessions in addition to some world-class plenary speakers, and also leading education politicians from the UK. It’s clear that this is a programme that is flourishing.

It does, on occasion, justify its “cultish” tag. Brett Wigdortz, the founder and CEO, is cheered everywhere he goes. At a dinner for leaving participants, everyone was encouraged to stand up and publicly declare what they were going to continue to personally do to address the cause of educational disadvantage; people did so loudly, proudly, and unashamedly.

But although it’s easy to laugh at the fervour, it’s hard to see a charity that, year-on-year, continues to attract large numbers of high-flying graduates to go and teach in some of England’s toughest schools as anything other than a good thing.

When you talk to the participants, the overwhelming attitude is not the arrogance that they’re sometimes accused of, but one of humility. People are quick to tell you, “I’ve only been in teaching for a year or two, so I’ve still got lots to learn.” They emphasise what they want to focus on, and how they want to grow, rather than what they have to contribute or what they can lecture others on.

It’s also great to see other organisations that have come out of Teach First also flourishing. The organisations Teaching Leaders (which trains middle leaders) and Future Leaders (which trains would-be heads) are going to merge, and, in doing so, provide a seamless pathway for leadership development. This new organisation is run by James Toop, a Teach First ambassador (graduate). A new Institute for Teaching is being set up, which will offer practical CPD for teachers, culminating in a Master’s. It’s run by Matt Hood, another Teach First ambassador.

Other Teach First-type schemes to get top graduates into public services have been set up in social care (Frontline), or in prisons (Unlocked). They are run by Josh MacAlister and Natasha Porter respectively, both – yes – Teach First ambassadors. Other schemes, such as Think Ahead for mental health, or Police Now for officers, have a senior Teach First presence on their trustee boards.

Teach First is a target for a lot of criticism. People query its high costs of training compared with some other routes, and its high drop-out rate at the end of the two-year programme – including people going to management consultancies and the like.

But research into Teach First’s impact by Becky Allen, director of Education Datalab, and others, shows that TF-ers can be genuinely life-changing for the kids they teach (as, of course, can all teachers).

On Monday, as the crowd stood to applaud Sakena Yacoobi, the female teacher who educates thousands of Afghan girls in Taliban-controlled territory, and then turned their attention to what they can do to share that vision, it was impossible to do anything but clap along.

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron

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