Figures published by graduate market research company High Fliers on Wednesday showed Teach First has become the UK’s top graduate employer. According to its findings, the charity took on 1,261 fresh-faced grads this year. I was one of last year’s intake, but as a soon-to-be-ex science teacher and Teach First ‘participant’, this news now evokes mixed feelings.
Teach First was founded by former McKinsey consultant Brett Wigdortz (now OBE) to introduce exceptional graduates into struggling schools with the idea that the grads’ enthusiasm and knowledge would be so infectious it would transform troubled teens’ lives.
To an extent, it works: I’ve met some fantastic people and outstanding teachers during my time with Teach First. David Cameron has been quoted saying the programme was ‘born from a real passion for education – a belief in its power to change lives’. Most Teach First teachers subscribe to his outlook and do their best to make it a reality. It brings people into education who may not have considered it otherwise, and many of these go on to become exceptional teachers.
But its survival-of-the-fittest model, and its focus on expansion at any cost, are problematic.
First, its model. Consider it in business terms: even the most cut-throat City institutions nurture graduate trainees during their first few weeks. Not so with Teach First: with the level of support varying wildly from school to school, to those in the programme it’s seen as a rite of passage to fail abysmally in the first few months. Teach First 'ambassadors' talk proudly about the difficulties they had to start with – the high workload, the lack of sleep, hostility from colleagues, daily mistakes – and how they fought through these and lived to teach another day.
Graduates in the programme (who start on an ordinary unqualified teachers’ salary but haven’t had to shell out £9,000 to train) are given the full responsibilities of a classroom teacher, but a fraction of the training. Most PGCE students are observed for weeks or even months before they are left alone with a class. This class will be chosen carefully based on their behaviour and relationship with the teacher. The aim of the exercise is, after all, to build up the trainee’s confidence.
During my training, I taught a class for 20 minutes. That was all the experience I had when I was sent, alone, in front of my first class: a group that had a bad reputation in a school already deemed ‘challenging’.
Disaster (/hilarity - or it is now the shakes have worn off) ensued: I had pupils refusing to follow instructions, hiding under furniture or climbing on top of it, running up and down the corridors, fighting one another and swearing. I didn’t know what to do – nothing in Teach First’s six weeks of ‘inspirational’ talks had prepared me for anything like this. It was a long, painful and pretty traumatic journey from this first lesson to the stage where I could teach a class competently.
Is all this anguish and self-doubt really necessary? Is this the best way to create outstanding teachers? Many Teach First teachers, who started the course with complete dedication, defect before the end of their first year [although Teach First says its 2012 intake had a 92% retention rate]. Teach First chooses its participants carefully, but a number of these potentially good teachers are chased away from education before they have the chance to find out whether they’re really capable or not.
The government (which donated £11.6m in grants to the programme in 2011/12) is bent on making the scheme its flagship programme for recruiting teachers and Teach First’s near-tenfold increase in numbers over as many years (186 grads joined its first programme in 2003) demonstrates its dedication to growth.
But I feel it needs to show it can provide adequate support to graduates it already employs before it can justify this kind of expansion. As a Teach First defector, it makes me feel I was ultimately disposable. And given schools are struggling to hold on to teachers in general, this isn’t helping.
Don’t get me wrong – those who do get through the programme show an enviable level of grit and determination. As it stands at the moment, though, taking on a Teach First teacher is a gamble for any school.
After the initial terror, I've realised the kids I teach are brilliant – they’re fun to work with, enthusiastic, and both incredibly frustrating and hilarious at the same time. It’s been an intense year and as I approach my final week, I already know I’m going to miss them. After a slew of lesson observations and essays, I'm glad to say I've been labelled a ‘good’ teacher.
But after this year’s constant confidence-bashing, sleep deprivation and abject failures, it doesn’t feel like it. Looking at my classes now, I can’t help thinking I’ve let them down this year – that any experienced, carefully trained teacher in my place would have given them more. I might have made a great teacher with time, who knows? But the bitter experience of single-handedly letting down whole classes of children has driven me, and a number of others like me, away from the profession altogether.
Perhaps, now he has finally reached the top spot in the graduate recruitment tables, Wigdortz can afford to pull his mind away from expansion and spend some time thinking about how he’s going to retain the graduates he already has.
*This article has been written under a pseudonym
- Image: Flickr/cybrarian77