You’re My Teach First, My Teach Last, My Teach Everything

Posted on January 11, 2014


Two confessions to begin this post. The first is that the title is a shameless decision, made purely so that I can crowbar in a Barry White choon.

The second confession is that I am not a Teach Firster. I know. I know. God please forgive me, but nearly 20 years ago I went to a university to take a PGCE in English with Drama. I’m not ashamed of the fact, and I don’t care who knows it. I don’t see myself as a dinosaur for following that route into the classroom (or, more pertinently at the time, for following that route into an extra year of student life complete with grant from the government). In truth it was the only way into teaching open to me at the time, given that I hadn’t opted to follow a B.Ed route at the start of my undergraduate career.

Happily for me, I have never had to defend myself for following the PGCE route into teaching. Nobody has ever challenged me about it. Nobody has ever engaged in a twitter duel with me about it. And nobody has ever suggested to me that it is an inferior route, or one that threatens professional standards or one that is too clique-y in its nature.

Over the course of my career I’ve worked with colleagues who have taken a different route into the profession, especially the Overseas Teacher Programme (OTP) and Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP). In both these cases too, I’ve never seen much in the way of antagonism towards the people taking the programmes. Sure, some have questioned our system’s over-reliance on overseas trained teachers and others have worried about the distinct lack of supernumerary places on the GTP, but nobody (in my admittedly ever-hazier memory) ever suggested to these teachers that their entire training programme sucked. It would have been unthinkable.

So why is it that the Teach First programme, and even individual Teach Firsters, get given such a rough ride by so many other professionals?

Until recently I’d never really thought about this. I accepted it as part of the landscape of the times. I’d listened unmoved either way to colleagues in schools bemoaning the route and I’d watched with utter disinterest to the amplification of these arguments in the febrile arena of the twittersphere.

As time passed I found myself working with a few Teach First Ambassadors (more of this later), and becoming regular readers of excellent blogposts by twitter Teach Firsters. In all cases I knew of their background because they openly told me about it, not in a missionary or messianic manner, but mundanely and matter-of-factly: what they liked about it and what they didn’t. But even then, apart from some minor irritation with the person-baiting excesses of the anti-TF brigade, the debate itself left me as motivated as a car in neutral.

And then, for reasons that I need to keep to myself for the time being, I began to find out more (a lot more!) about the Teach First route. I read the documentation from the organisation itself about the programme. I read its two Ofsted evaluation documents (the 2011 report is amazing, but I rather preferred the more nuanced and developmental analysis of initial findings from 2006). I read some of the materials given to Teach Firsters during their assessment, their summer training programme and their two-year school-based induction. And then I read this book by the CEO of Teach First Brett Wigdortz.


Having done all of this reading, and consequent thinking, about Teach First I don’t think I can stand on the sidelines of this debate anymore. I’m not sure that I will persuade anyone with this post, but it feels like the right thing to do to get some stuff off my chest. So, here it is, my take on some of the ‘myths’ about Teach First and Teach Firsters.

‘Myth 1: Why do they have to insist on calling themselves Teach Firsters and not just teachers?

There’s no doubt about it that many (though not all) Teach Firsters find a way of letting us know that they have come through this route. It’s on their twitter bios and they happily blog about it from time to time. But do I think that they see themselves as Teach Firsters first and teachers second? Hell, no. There’s not a doubt about it that Teach Firsters care more about their role as teachers ahead of everything else (including sometimes their own families, which is the best indication of their status as Teachers First).

If I put myself in their shoes for a moment and wonder what it would be like to be amongst a relative handful of teachers from a certain route (TF recruited only around 200-300 teachers per year in their first five years), to have come through a highly selective programme (only 180 of 1000 applicants with high level degrees made the cut in the first year), on a programme that radically changed the way teachers are trained (possibly forever) then I too would be damn proud of myself for having done so. That’s only human nature, surely.

Because of the nature of the Teach First training and induction programme, the bonds between the teacher and their university seem weaker than for those of us who went through the PGCE and especially the B.Ed routes. Whereas I have a certain professional pride in having achieved my PGCE from York University and regularly check through my alumni magazine to see what has been happening at the old place, TFers have Teach First as their unifying organisation. It is their alma mater.

As myths go, this is the one I find the most curious. Why do so many people seem to get so het up because a group of other people have a sense of community and a sense of belonging? And why do they think that belonging to one group weakens their right to belong to another? It mystifies me, so on with some of the more substantive myths.

Myth 2: How can privileged and often privately-educated Oxbridge graduates relate to students in challenging schools?

First of all, I’m pretty certain that the stereotype of a Teach First teacher, as some kind of Hooray Henry en route to a hedge fund management role via doing some virtually pro bono slum-crawling work in an urban comprehensive, is itself a myth and not really worthy of much discussion.

More worrying is the perception that top Oxbridge or Russell Group grads (TF takes about two-thirds of its recruits from the RG) are being helplessly naive and hopelessly deluded in thinking that they can change the world (just a little) by teaching in challenging schools. There’s a touch of anti-elite inverted snobbery around some of the concerns raised about Teach First that I find a little distasteful.

Of course the country’s top universities need to do much, much more to attract students from humble backgrounds who have achieved highly at A-levels, but it seems to me that on the one hand TF may well be doing more on that score by the very fact that it is sending successful students from these places into areas of high deprivation and educational malnutrition.

On the other hand, if any of these trainees enter the less-than-hallowed halls of inner-city comprehensives with grandiose plans that just by being there they will single-handedly lift the chins of the students they teach, then they are certain to have that knocked out of them quick-smart and (hopefully) replaced by only marginally less grandiose plans to lift those chins alongside others.

Myth 3: How can they possibly master the art, craft and science of this profession after only six weeks of training?

Perhaps the most prolific of arguments levelled against Teach First is the belief that trainees only have six weeks of training before entering classrooms, as opposed to PGCE students who have a whole year. This is kinda true and kinda not. The Summer Institute is indeed the only block of formal training apropos of TFers taking on their own classes, but really, how far is this different to the experience of PGCE students?

In my first placement as a student teacher (much less than six weeks into the course) I was pretty much abandoned by two of the classroom teachers I was supposedly working with. Where I was supported well, I was pretty much left to get on with it because I was good enough to be allowed to get on with it. By the time the second placement came around, the lead-in time to my taking control of my classes was very short indeed.

Perhaps I should also mention at this point that TFers only get to this stage if they complete an application form far more rigorous than I had to for my PGCE. Then they have to complete an assessment day far more rigorous than I had to for my PGCE (mock lesson, group problem-solving activity and focused interview) to meet standards far more rigorous than I had to for my PGCE. And even then, their conditional offer is dependent upon them completing a self-evaluation and improvement plan against their subject’s National Curriculum orders that is far more rigorous than I had to for my PGCE (mainly because I wasn’t asked to do this at all).

But, for me, the big difference with traditional PGCE routes (and critics sometimes neglect to mention that Teach First IS a PGCE route) is that the university supports the trainee with a fortnightly visit to the placement school. How I wish that some of the PGCE students I have mentored down the years had had fortnightly visits!

The other big difference is that TFers are supported throughout their NQT year too, by the organisation itself and by their schools. And in this second year, having initially and necessarily focused on the craft of teaching, the Teach First trainee has the opportunity (expectation?) to develop further their academic knowledge of pedagogy and educational leadership in completing a masters programme by the end of their NQT year: a tough ask of any new recruit to teaching.

I recognise that all of this doesn’t replace the craft knowledge gained by teachers over the course of many years, but then nor does the traditional PGCE route.

Myth 4: Why do Teach Firsters seem to think that they know the answer to EVERYTHING?

A part of me wants to argue that this is the myth about Teach First with the largest amount of truth in it. I could back this up with the fact the Teach First prioritises leadership as a core strand of its training programme, initially through a focus on leadership within the classroom but extending to a more whole-school and even system-wide focus. I could add to this argument that TFers are selected for their leadership potential as well as their teaching potential, and point to the number of prominent bloggers and social entrepreneurs that emerge from the ranks of this programme.

But then I begin to wonder how much our perspective of Teach Firsters as leaders is shaped by precisely these prominent tweeters, bloggers and entrepreneurs who, by their very presence, cause us to forget about the silent majority who just get on and teach without shouting about it on social media sites. After all, here am I blogging in the knowledge that a fair few people will read this and either agree or disagree with me about this topic. How representative am I of all the teachers in this country? Estimates tend to suggest that I am about 1/20th of the profession in terms of my twitter presence. As a blogger I probably represent no more than 1/100th of people doing the same job as me.

Whilst I recognise that there is sometimes a fashionable ‘cult of the new’ in teaching and that many senior leaders (myself included) could lay ourselves open to charges of favouring those newbies to the profession who are happy to challenge the status quo, there can also be a fashionably unfashionable backlash against this ‘cult of the new’ and I wonder whether TFers (as newbie teachers from a newbie route) suffer from this more than they deserve.

After all they are often the most voracious readers of high level research into education on the block, possibly because of their early engagement in masters studies (it took me fifteen years before I started mine).

None of this is to say that I always agree with what many of these TFers have to say. Oftentimes I believe that I can see a familiar naïveté in their solutions to age-old problems that reminds me of me and others like me at a similar point in my professional development. And occasionally I patronisingly assume that they too will mellow in time, whilst still hanging on to their precious naïveté and questioningness. The big difference I see between me then and them now is that they have a much bigger platform on which to put forward their answers to the unanswerable conundrum that is this beautifully barmy profession of ours.

Ultimately, though, whether I agree or disagree with them when they speak I will defend to the death their right to hold these views. After all, if they think they have the answers to everything they’ll either find out they have and change the world or find out they haven’t and learn from it. It’s a win-win.

Myth 5: What use is it to students in these schools to have a teacher for just two years, however good they may become?

For me, this is the most well-meaning of the myths that occur in discussions about Teach First. But I still think that it’s a myth, based upon figures from the first cohorts of the programme rather than upon all of its cohorts.

Let me take completion rates first. For traditional PGCE courses this stands at 86% (not bad at all, given the eye-popping, stress-testing nature of standing up in front of 30 kids on a regular basis and getting them to behave, learn and achieve as a result of your actions). For Teach First, a route that removes the opportunity to choose the area of the country in which they are asked to teach and asks them to take full responsibility for this classes from the get-go, the completion rate is a whopping 95%.

But what about retention rates? For PGCEs the retention rates stand at 63%, a sad attrition rate of 1/3rd. For Teach First, since the beginning of the programme, the figure is 54%, with more recent cohorts averaging 65% (all of the figures above come from parliamentary records). Even if we take the overall rate of 54% as our starting point (and personally I would see that as a touch unfair given that the set-up of a programme like this is bound to be fraught with unseen difficulties), over half of the cohort staying on in education when virtually none of them would have chosen to go into education without the scheme, is not bad going. Factoring into this the fact that they are being placed for two years in some of the toughest places to teach in the country – places shunned by many teachers and left to the lottery of overseas recruitment and supply teaching for decades – I find this retention rate frankly astonishing.

But what if they do leave? Doesn’t this leave the students in the neediest schools short-changed and lacking the stability that they so vitally need and crave? Of course it does, but I’ve worked in precisely these kind of schools for most of my career, and this lack of stability is a fact of life for most of them. Teach First is sadly one of the few attempts to solve this sad state of things and rather than slate them for it we need to ask more of our government about how it is going to improve the dreadful retention rates across the whole system generally and for struggling schools specifically. Fighting amongst ourselves about which route is best doesn’t contribute to the morale of the profession at a time when we need to pull together to demand (at the very least) the professional respect from politicians which might just start to block the drains that wash away some of the most talented teachers we have.

Myth 6: Teach First and then what? Why should education be seen as a stepping stone to something else?

I could have wrapped this myth up with the previous one, but I think it bears separate scrutiny, mainly because it was the one that most surprised me as I began finding out more about the programme. Having read all that literature about it I found no specific comments about Teach First being so named because those finishing the course were openly expected to move onto ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ things. Instead the name came about because one of the organisations supporting the programme in its earliest days was ‘London First’, which rather changes the mindset when contemplating this myth.

Of course, we all know that there may be some of the high flying graduates who enter the route with their eyes on other prizes, but I am quite happy to admit that I only began my teaching career as a route into journalism, and I’m pretty confident that there are a fair few others who followed a traditional PGCE route who did so mainly because they had been thwarted in their life’s ambitions.

The big difference with Teach First is not that it only asks for two years commitment from their trainees with regard to a teaching placement, but that it asks it’s trainees to remain committed to the goal of reducing inequality of educational outcomes for students (primarily based upon their socio-economic position within society) for the rest of their lives. My PGCE course, brilliant as it was, never asked me for any such aspirational commitment beyond becoming a good teacher for myself, my students and my school. And, yes, I know: teachers up and down this country have that same commitment and same belief in their power to change the so-called ‘life chances’ of students in their care. But this is an organisation doing the same thing on a now national scale, and putting its money where its mouth is by putting its trainees where the money isn’t.

Although I am a little Britishly squeamish at some of the cheesy expressions of the Teach First mission (the name ‘ambassadors’ leaves me relatively cold, for example), I am much more at ease with the mission itself. I’ll lay my cards entirely on the table at this point and say that I absolutely love the notion that whether the Teach First ambassadors only Teach First or Teach Last, that they will be expected to Teach Everything. Or, more plainly put, that whether they stay in teaching or do something else, the programme is designed to inculcate within them a sense of highly focused social responsibility for the educational outcomes of kids in the most deprived areas of the country.

It’s probably too early to prove whether or not this intended longevity of impact is actually working, but I certainly hope it does. In fact, if we could guarantee that TFers will take the lessons learned from two years in struggling schools into future careers as politicians, business leaders and media shapers so that these schools get a much better deal in the future, then I would start encouraging more of them to leave and “go get a ‘real’ job”!!! Until then, I’ll simply hope that more and more of them hang on in there and become the great teachers these schools need.

Myth 7: What is going to happen to our profession now that Teach First has shattered the integrity of our professional qualifications?

As this blogpost is already giving War and Peace a run for its money I’ll keep this last section short. To be honest, I’d like to think that in addressing the previous six myths that I have already exploded this final one.

Teach First did radically alter the way in which teachers were trained in the British system and I suspect that some of the myths shown above come from an increasing concern of teachers (about academies, and pension changes, and many other things) that Teach First was the thin end of a very big wedge that could see professional standards attacked to the detriment of us all.

But actually, the thing I’ve learnt most about Teach First over the last month or so is that is an organisation with exceptionally high standards of itself and of its graduates. In its 2011 Ofsted report, the 44 separate judgments made about the organisation across all it’s work (in eight different areas of the country with numerous university providers) all came out as outstanding. And whilst the naysayers might say this reflects political will rather than the reality, everything I’ve read of heard about the Teach First recruitment, assessment, training and support processes tell me otherwise.

I believe very strongly that our profession is indeed under threat. It is under threat from the removal of a requirement that teachers in academies and Free Schools have qualified teacher status. And it is under threat from the poorly thought-through and potentially disastrous route that is School Direct, a route that has the capacity to split schools and university providers, and remove the academic content from qualified teacher status. But our profession is not under threat from Teach First or Teach Firsters: it has been enhanced by them and School Direct providers could do a lot worse than to have a look at what Teach First does well, replicate it and try to do even better than it.

Finally (I promise), to all those PGCE Firsters who have waded through this blogpost with an increasing feeling of indignation at my defence of Teach Firsters, remember that I loved you first and chill out to the sweet sounds of the Walrus of Love.