Putting Teachers First

Sam Rhodes 27 April 2014

For some, Teach First represents a get out of jail free card. Is the city not for you? Law Conversion looking like a shortcut to drudgery and boredom? Then try Teach First – be inside a classroom within six weeks of signing up, and give something back to an education system which has served most of us exceedingly well. Now the largest graduate employer in the UK, Teach First was set up by an American Management Consultant in 2002, and trains more than 1,500 teachers every year. At first glance the idea of Oxbridge and Russell Group students parachuting in to teach under-privileged children seems like an excellent way to improve social mobility, but some aspects of the social enterprise are rather more troubling.

After completing a mere two years training, graduates become ‘Teach First Ambassadors’. This can simply mean promoting the Teach First brand to other undergraduates, and then going on to a committed and long-term teaching career, but for many, the other advantages of completing the Teach First training are rather more attractive. Preference in first-round interviews from PwC, Google, and the Civil Services is guaranteed, and the retention rates of teachers who have finished a Teach First course is far lower than those who trained through a PGCE. While young and engaging teachers are a vital part of any education, the profession also needs experienced teachers who intend to stay in their schools for the long haul.

That’s exactly what teaching is; a profession. Just like lawyers and doctors, teachers have a huge responsibility to ensure that the futures of both the individuals under their care, and society as a whole, are secured, and entrusting this to someone with only six weeks of formal training seems very dangerous indeed. Dropout rates for PGCE and Teach First courses are similar while the course is ongoing at 15% – the key difference is that those who are not in schools cannot damage the educational prospects of those in their charge while they work out that teaching is not for them.

Those who run the Cambridge University Faculty of Education are very much committed to the PGCE; it is the only such course in the country to be given a ‘perfect’ Ofsted report. It still involves a great deal of time in schools, but on more traditional placements where quality safeguards are in place. Obviously there will be those with Teach First who feel that they are natural teachers; that it’s simply a waste of time to complete a PGCE, and that the sooner they’re in the classroom, the sooner they can be changing lives for the better. Yet it’s hard to dispense with the suspicion that for many undergraduates Teach First is more about what teaching can do for them, and not what they can do for students. The option of Teach First is certainly very attractive for us, but try asking a student at a secondary school if they’d prefer someone with six weeks or a whole year’s worth of training. The answer may prove to be quite uncomfortable.