Why I think Teach First is a good thing

Last week I saw this video advert – “We Are Teach First”:

The generalisations were off-putting. The character of “Rachel” and her school are trite stereotypes, and the use of statistics slapdash. I know that some people are worried by Teach First, and watching this ad might not help. It’s easy to see it as patronising. But despite this broad brush-strokes advertising campaign, I think Teach First is a good thing. Here’s why.

Making teaching a competitive graduate career

When I graduated from Oxford, I was the only one going on to a PGCE with state school teaching in mind (you can read about my experiences here). Each year I return to my Oxford college for a careers forum, where alumni speak to undergraduates about where their degrees took them and offer advice to those just about to start their journeys. The first year I went to extol the virtues of teaching, I spoke to one undergraduate interesting in teaching. This year, I was told by the tutors that Teach First was the single biggest destination for graduates from my college in the past academic year. That means that high achieving, driven graduates with exceptional subject knowledge are pouring in to state schools as opposed to management consultancy firms, whereas previously they weren’t. This has got to be a good thing, for them and for the students they teach.

The sense of moral purpose


You don’t often get organisations working with genuine moral purpose, but Teach First is one. It’s setting out to make a difference and to correct an injustice. Whilst many may take issue with its methods, its heart is in the right place – on its sleeve.

They don’t just teach first

One of the major criticisms of Teach First is the name, which seems to imply that teaching is merely a stepping stone to a “proper” career, like some sort of extended gap year. Well, that’s just not the case.

As this from Laura McInerney shows, most of them stay in teaching. These are graduates who might not have been there in the first place, were it not for Teach First.

I’d rather have bankers that taught first


As case studies like this of Lena Khudeza show, some Teach Firsters do use the programme as a stepping stone to something else. And why not? For me, teaching a vocation – I can’t see myself doing anything else, and I don’t want to. But not everyone is like me. Why can’t teaching be something you do – and do well – for a few years before trying something else? We welcome teachers who have spent time outside of education into our schools, as they bring an enriched experience into the classroom. I’m sure the reverse is true.  I’d certainly rather have bankers and management consultants who understand the impact of poverty and deprivation having seen it first hand than those who have only ever breathed the rarefied air of privilege. Maybe, when they’re in their Canary Wharf offices, they’ll think of the students they taught and make different – better – decisions.

Teach Firsters enrich the debate

Much has been made of the precociousness of some Teach First graduates, particularly on Twitter, but those arguments seem to me to miss the point. People can say what they like on Twitter (and they frequently do) – but you don’t need to listen. You curate your own timeline. What I’ve found is that many of the Teach Firsters I follow and read have really interesting, thoughtful and perceptive things to say. Who says you need to have taught for twenty years before you’re entitled to an opinion? Okay – don’t answer that. But I value the perspective of those new to the profession just as much as those who have a wealth of experience. Coming into schools fresh, from a different angle, can uncover assumptions and myths, and help us all to move forward. Being challenged about what you believe can make you re-evaluate and either change, or defend, your position. This can only be healthy. And “Teach Firsters” are no more a homogeneous group than “PE Teachers” – they come in many varieties.

The analysis shows the benefit

Extract from IFS Report R100

Extract from IFS Report R100

Teach First is expensive, there’s no doubt about it. It costs £9k to train a PGCE student (a third of which is paid by the student themselves), and around £26k for a Teach First trainee. But, given that it costs £270k to train a doctor (source), maybe Teach First is investing the right amount in training teachers, and the PGCE has been doing it on a shoestring. After all, training professionals should be something our society invests heavily in…shouldn’t it? And the recent paper from the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that, for the schools eligible for the programme, the benefits were considerable:

For most routes, the net benefit to schools is small in comparison with the costs for central government. The notable exception to this is Teach First, where the largest net benefit to schools is reported.

I wish it had been around years ago

My PGCE served me well. I have read some horror stories about inadequate support, dreadful training, and incompetent administration, but mine was pretty good. I was – and am – happy with the way I was trained. But, had Teach First been an option when I was an undergraduate, I would have leapt at it.

Please also read Kev Bartle’s excellent You’re my Teach First, my Teach Last, my Teach Everything which covers this topic much better than I can!

9 thoughts on “Why I think Teach First is a good thing

  1. We are a Teach First school now and our experience has been so positive. Bright people with resilience, drive and ambition – teaching prerequisites. We fully intend to use Teach First as a source of high quality people willing to graft to become the best they can be. Just another advantage of being in a school in an area of deprivation where ‘making a difference’ goes beyond rhetoric.

  2. For the first time, Chris, I find myself disagreeing immensely with your blog. You seem to have taken an ‘ends justifies the means’ argument’ to make a case for Teach First. As you point out, it is expensive, at a time when the public sector is trying to manage huge cuts. If someone came up with an alternative route into nursing that was 100 times more expensive than previously tried and tested routes, there would be more than a few raised eyebrows.

    As far as I can see, the pie chart does not point out that that a large percentage of Teach First candidates do leave, even if they have spent a year or two in school leadership after their initial two years. This must raise further questions about the long term value of the huge expense.

    I think we need to consider other answers as to why many top graduates from top universities do not consider entering the teaching profession (and for that matter why top graduates from anywhere may not). It alarms me that the graduates you speak of, at a university still hugely dominated by undergraduates from private schools, are now considering teaching when offered an enhanced route that pays them, rather than adds to the student debt that many other new teachers have to live with. After being paid to train and fast tracked to leadership positions, many take their skills elsewhere and as your case study shows, that is precisely what many of them intended to do from the start. Personally, that strikes me as a national scandal and by no means a solution to anything, even if some lucky schools do gain, albeit temporarily, from having a Teach First trainee with them for a while. I do not feel the sense of gratitude you seem to portray towards the Teach First trainees who chose to spend a little time in schools before moving on to other the professions. I doubt you can cite any evidence that what their thinking in management consultancy or elsewhere is significantly different as a result of the Teach First experience and if it is, that is largely to the benefit of management consultancy (or whatever), not education.

    Bring on the publication of the University of Durham report on Teach First, which has been repeatedly delayed. Meanwhile, you could read what Daniel Mujis has written on the subject.

    • Thanks Jon – I appreciate the comment, even if it’s a shame we don’t see eye-to-eye on this issue. You’re right, I have no evidence that TF has a positive impact on those going on to other careers following teaching. I was speaking there from personal experience of a private-school-and-Oxford education, and how blinkered and sheltered that left me at the age of 21. Training and working in state schools helped me, so I was making the logical extension that it is likely to be an experience that is beneficial to others with my background too.
      I am as frustrated as you that more top graduates don’t choose teaching on its own merits, and I welcome innovations to turn this around. I see Teach First as one of those innovations, and a successful one at that. I suppose that’s where we diverge!
      I too look forward to the Durham report, and I will follow up on the Daniel Mujis suggestion – thank you. My next post will be all about festive fun in schools…hopefully less controversial (although you never know!)

      • Ooh careful, Chris, I’m a former classroom music teacher who thinks the years of repeated Christmas music was probably a factor in moving into the SLT. But seriously, I hope there are Teach First candidates who, like you, recognise what they are learning in a social, political and economic sense. Now there is a very interesting research project to add to my endless list …….

  3. Not all of us were privately educated Oxbridge lots either. I think that is a big misconception. We are people with 2.1s in a relevant subject, reasonably decent A levels and who performed well in a reasonably rigorous (but not perfect) day long assessment centre and subject knowledge project. In my opinion TF fills a gap in teacher recruitment and attracts some able teachers but is beginning to seem like the only solution to the recruitment problem. The dfe need to get their thinking caps on and stop relying on Wigdortz to solve their problems for them.

  4. Pingback: Education Panorama (January ’15) by @TeacherToolkit | @TeacherToolkit

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