4 Reasons Why Teach First Might Be A Good Idea (& 22 Reasons Why It Might Not)

Given recent political limelight-sharing speeches, and education news media puff pieces, we thought it important to restore some balance to the current largely light-touch media debate on Teach First. We also thought that it would be useful to collect all the various arguments for and against Teach First in one place.

TrojanHorse

What follows therefore is a list of 4 reasons said to be why alternative certification programmes like Teach First are a good idea, and 22 reasons why they are perhaps not. As we are busy people and have jobs of our own, time has not been devoted to providing the many references for the reasons; however, sources for the information below can be easily found on the web. We will leave this piece of research up to you.

First, the 4 reasons why Teach First is a good idea:

1. It could be said to attract trainee teachers from backgrounds which do not typically choose the teaching profession, and as a profession that ought to reflect the whole community in which it operates, this can be no bad thing. As we shall see below, this argument is not without qualification, but it is good from an inclusion point of view that more ‘corporate’ types are included in the broad church that is the teaching profession.

2. This leads on from point 1. With more corporate types now seemingly choosing to teach (albeit temporarily), this can only help to publicise the type of working conditions that students and staff face, and as sympathetic human beings like the rest of us, Teach First recruits are sure to perhaps think again about how schools, teachers and students are perceived by the media and, to some extent, popularly, and carry these revised and more sympathetic views with them as they enter the corporate world after their flirtation with teaching and front-line education is over.

Indeed, there is already evidence that this is the case. A fairly recent Teach First survey of its recruits opinions was explicit in its condemnation of many things (e.g. stress, workload) that teachers and schools have known for a long time but that successive UK governments have refused to acknowledge. In this sense, Teach First is a Trojan Horse for, rather than against, the teaching profession.

3. Teach First is undoubtedly a successful graduate recruiter. This does not mean that it is a successful recruiter of teachers, of course, but it does know how to appeal to certain types of graduate.

4. We can agree that there are many in the organisation whose hearts are in the right place. They want to improve education. We can disagree, as will be set out below, about how this is done, but this seems to be the intention.

*We could write about how motivated and enthusiastic Teach First recruits and alumni are, as this is undoubtedly true not only of them but of the Teach For America recruits and alumni we have also met, or we could write about how good their CVs are, but these attributes would appear not to be the preserve solely of alternative certification recruits, but characteristics possessed of other teacher training route participants also.

Incidentally, just as established teacher training routes (and contrary to how Teach First presents its ‘talented’, ‘outstanding’ recruits, and to how it is perceived), Teach First accepts applicants with lower second class (2:2) degrees.

Now to the 22 reasons why Teach First isn’t such a good idea after all:

1. It defies common sense to think that placing young Teach First recruits in the most disadvantaged schools is better than having teachers with more training and more experience.

In response, some will (erroneously) argue that the top private schools don’t employ qualified teachers, and the kids at these schools seem to do very well. However, we could also very reasonably argue that teaching a small class of wealthy – economically, socially and culturally – kids from privileged backgrounds is not quite the same as teaching a class of 30 or so poor kids in an inner city borough school. The latter type of school requires a more experienced and trained head, and to say otherwise beggars belief.

Another response will be that the Teach First selection process is so rigorous that only the most able are identified and recruited. This may be so, but this confuses ability with experience. Experience is something you develop as you progress in your career. This is also why more established teacher training routes place such an onus on lengthy school placement (typically, 18 weeks), and why the most disadvantaged pupils should have the most experienced staff.

It may also be said that disadvantaged schools find it hard to recruit good teachers and so Teach First can address this. However, the sensible solution is to offer incentives (e.g. creative autonomy, bonuses, higher salaries etc.) to experienced staff to move to disadvantaged schools, an idea which is ironic given recent performance-related pay reforms in England. This type of incentive was tried in the past, but it would seem that currently this is now not government strategy.

The fundamental importance of experience is further demonstrated by Teach First’s own recent recruitment drive. The various positions in research, mentorship, public relations and so on up for grabs at Teach First are quite predictably filled with people with the appropriate experience. Experience is why for example the head of Teach First’s external relations is a former BBC employee, and why a former think tank researcher and government advisor is now head of research. Teaching is no different; experience counts.

2. This leads us to our second reason why Teach First is a comparatively bad idea. The training of 6 weeks is woefully short. Compare this with a more established PGCE run over a period of at least 36 weeks, for instance.

Teach First might argue that its length of training compares favourably with other alternative routes into teaching such as School Direct. However, in the case of School Direct, for example, recruits must have at least three years’ work experience before being eligible. Teach First recruits are recent graduates i.e. they do not have this experience.

3. Also short is classroom practice time prior to a Teach First recruit being given a class. In fact, Teach First recruits do not appear to teach a full lesson AT ALL until they are thrown in at the deep end at the school they have been assigned to. The information on Teach First’s length of lesson practice is not easy to come by, maybe not surprising given the fact that Higher Education Institutions elsewhere offering full PGCE courses are involved, but from what can be gathered, Teach First recruits are given only about 20 minutes lesson practice before being given an entire class for an entire year.

On established university-based teacher training courses, on the other hand, trainees are given support and time to build up to the point when they take a full class for a full lesson. This is a way of making recruits fully aware of the demands of the job, and working in a school, but also a way of weeding out those who aren’t suited to teaching BEFORE they are given the weighty responsibility of a class of disadvantaged youngsters for a year.

This lack of preparation is unfair of course on the pupils and school, but it is also incredibly unfair on the Teach First recruit, who already under intense pressure to succeed is placed under even greater pressure to adjust to the life as a teacher that is perhaps not the life presented by Teach First’s glossy brochure and experienced in the short Summer Institute.

4. A further reason why Teach First is a bad idea is the cost. Research suggests it costs more to a school (and so the taxypayer) to recruit one of Teach First’s applicants than it does any other route into teaching. There is also the fact as a competitive social enterprise, some of the money received by Teach First is spent (wastefully) on promotion and social events, wining and dining MPs and the great and the good, and also paying staff massive salaries. The established training routes do not cost anywhere near as much. No one goes into teacher training for the money; can we say the same for Teach First?

5. There is no independent evidence to support the claim that Teach First recruits are any better than those they have replaced. All studies are inconclusive, as education research typically is, and independent research is very thin on the ground (if it exists at all). There are numerous studies by go-to researchers, but these are either funded in whole or in part by Teach First, or are funded by those with a vested interest in seeing Teach First succeed. Independent research in the US on Teach for America tells a similar story.

6. The very organisations said to be the most influential in today’s global economy, and by consequence, influential in today’s global politics provide a significant amount of the financing for Teach First. However, it is also true that in today’s global economy there is an ever widening gap between rich and poor and an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. We could quite reasonably understand the few as meaning the companies that support Teach First. In other words, while Teach First claims to address educational disadvantage, it takes money from the very people regarded by many as responsible for, or least the main beneficiaries of, that disadvantage.

7. Teach First recruits offer schools and governments a means to address the so-called “cost disease” of teacher salaries and pensions. This is already happening with performance-related pay (merit pay) reforms in the US and UK, but Teach First offers an opportunity to facilitate this even further. Teach First recruits don’t stay in teaching very long, and neither do they demand as much as longer serving employees in pensions or salaries while in teaching.

They cost more to recruit, but this money goes to Teach First. This is also possibly connected to the previous point: by depressing pension contributions and salaries in this way, money can be ‘saved’ and the wages of the rich and powerful, including Teach First executives, can presumably keep rising.

8. The next reason may not necessarily be a bad thing to some: alternative certification programmes like Teach First can be employed to weaken union support and membership.
Of course, there will be those who see the weakening of union support and membership as no bad thing. However, given a choice, only the most rabidly ideological would disagree that having unions is better than none at all.

It would be interesting then to know whether Teach First recruit union membership is significantly lower than other teacher training routes. The main teaching unions in the UK (e.g. NUT, NASUWT) are publicly at least not unsupportive of Teach First, which suggests they do join, although these unions do not seem to see Teach First as any long-term answer to educational inequality.

9. The next reason is related to the various communities that Teach First graduates are placed in. In the US, it has been suggested that Teach For America recruits are displacing teachers from the same communities that they teach. This matters because it is thought that being taught by teachers from the same community, rather than by those whom are not, has a positive impact on teaching and learning.

This community knowledge belief would appear to be the antithesis of Teach First’s programme. Teach First recruits are chosen not it seems for their community knowledge, but for their generic aptitude.

10. A further suspicion is that Teach First is being used to undermine more established teacher training routes, and is being lined up, with OFSTED’s help, to replace these routes in future.

Aside from harsh OFSTED’s gradings, under-promotion of established teacher training routes and other alternative certification routes (e.g. School Direct), and generous Teach First funded bursaries for successful applicants, there are other long-term political reasons for this. Teach First offers Tory ministers and New Labour, as well as the global corporations that fund and/or influence them, a way to dismantle teacher training institutions and their pesky non-neoliberal, egalitarian and inclusive ideals.

Some HEIs in the UK have bitten the bullet to some extent and partnered with Teach First. Perhaps this is an attempt to stem the flow before the flood. Whatever the reasons, a Teach First-run college of teacher training is not far off.

11. Teach First is part of a broader movement that identifies teacher quality as the key factor in raising student achievement levels. Another organisation in this movement, and one with a close relationship to Teach First, is Enron’s former management consultancy McKinsey & Co. The founder of Teach First (Brett Wigdortz), for instance, worked for McKinsey, and McKinsey partner Mary Meaney is one of Teach First’s 11 trustees. McKinsey’s former employee Michael Barber has published two highly lauded reports on the importance of teacher quality, and these reports, and Barber, were central to the Tory government’s 2010 White Paper ‘The Importance of Teaching’.

Why the focus on teacher quality? One reason is that the importance of good teaching is common sense, just like the importance of having an experienced teacher. However, there is another reason: focusing on teaching could be said to draw attention away from the underlying causes of educational disadvantage and the types of causes that those who fund Teach First are regarded by some as responsible for. In other words, teacher quality is a fig leaf diverting the popular gaze from the long accepted and also commonsensical idea that economic, social, cultural and political inequality is the main reason why pupils fails to fulfil their potential at school. This lack of fulfilment is not inevitable, of course, but you only have to look at where underperforming schools are situated to realise how closely linked poverty and underachievement are, and how being poor makes succeeding in life all that more harder. Despite the best efforts of Teach First, Tory ministers and others to pretend otherwise, no quality teacher is going to be able to address these deep-rooted issues particularly in only two years and with no previous teaching experience.

*Incidentally, Michael Barber disagrees with the view that higher salaries attract quality staff. He believes competitive salaries are important only initially. However, it would seem that the counter-intuitive idea of higher long-term salaries not being an incentive, doesn’t apply to non-teaching staff at Teach First, many of whom receive handsome pay increases every year, nor apply to millionaire executive Michael Barber himself, or apply to the employees of the investment banks, accountancy firms, management consultancies and other organisations that fund Teach First.

12. If the onus is on teacher quality, and not experience, for example, it means there is less incentive to keep experienced but also more expensive and more change-resistant staff on. The removal of more experienced senior staff has not been made easy, and the unions, which many supporter of Teach First will despise, have had a big hand in this. Where voluntary redundancy has failed, however, the suspicion is that PRP, malicious reassignment, updated certification requirements, and Teach First recruits might succeed.

13. This next reason concerns turnover. It has long been suggested that teacher turnover is bad for learning. Teach First actively promotes the idea of teaching being only a short-term commitment. In other words, despite claiming to address educational disadvantage, Teach First actively encourages something (i.e. staff turnover) that is widely held to have a negative effect on learning.

That there is this two-year commitment is a mystery to many. In management consultancy, the use of short-term contracts is common practice, and so this might explain it, but when you accept as many do that experience is crucial to being a good teacher and that therefore retaining rather than actively promoting turnover of staff is a good thing, then Teach First’s policy makes no sense whatsoever.

There is also evidence that kids are not only affected by teacher turnover in terms of their learning but also in terms of their confidence and self-respect, which has a known impact on learning. ‘Why,’ disadvantaged kids ask, ‘do teachers not stick with us?’ and who would blame them.

14. The Summer Institute. With the Teach For America summer training schools, a criticism is that the summer school kids that are being taught, typically those who need extra tuition, are being taught by Teach For America trainees, rather than proper teachers. It is not easy to work out who is being taught during these similar ‘residentials’ in the UK. If it is in remedial classes, as in the US, this means the neediest kids are being used as guinea pigs to train Teach First recruits.

15. One question that isn’t asked is whether those who advocate Teach First, and those who benefit from its largesse, would be happy that their children were taught by Teach First recruits? Of course, this is purely hypothetical as the people advocating and benefitting from Teach First’s money are highly unlikely to have kids in educationally disadvantaged schools. It would seem however that when given a choice, Teach First would not be one.

16. There are also concerns about the impact Teach First recruits have on education in the long term. In the US there are numerous complaints of Teach For America alumni having gained positions of political influence promoting policies against public education, and in favour of neo-liberal education reforms such as vouchers, charter schools and PRP as well as diverting public funds to Teach For America.

It does not follow that Teach First-ers will follow suit, nor are all Teach For America alumni education reformers in this respect. However, the suspicion remains, and this is not helped by its founder’s management-consultancy career background nor helped by Teach First’s major corporate and political backers.

It is also telling that Teach First has taken a keen interest in school governing. This could be perceived as an attempt to guide school governing in a direction favourable to Teach First, and also in a direction that benefits neoliberal education reforms of the kind favoured by its benefactors. We ought then to expect a significant presence of former Teach First recruits on or around boards in the years to come.

17. There is good evidence that Teach First is expanding outside its original remit (while at the same time sticking to its ‘addressing educational disadvantage’ soundbite). It is known for example that Teach First now places recruits in all kinds of schools, even schools rated outstanding, or schools awarded National Support School status. This new remit would not seem to be addressing educational disadvantage.

On this blog a couple of years ago, we wondered why Teach First recruits were not being sent into schools under special measures, which are clearly educationally disadvantaged, even though Teach First claimed to address educational disadvantage, and we wonder similarly why Teach First recruits are being sent to schools that wouldn’t seem to need them at all. This would suggest that Teach First are not really about tackling about educational disadvantage, but about something else.

18. There is a moral issue related to using the disadvantaged as a tool by which a recruit’s CV can be buffed up. There is the presumed case of the kids being taught at Summer Institutes, but the entire Teach First project is perhaps guilty of this. It is a sad indication of how some people see the world that they can view young disadvantaged people as a means by which they can get a good job.

Recruits may say that they want to make a difference, of course, and they may be honest, determined and committed. If this is so, however, they better off without a training route that offers little training, expects recruits to swim in the deep end, and that is addressing inequalities that the very people who fund the organisation are likely responsible for.

19. There are numerous other reasons. The original idea for Teach For America was an undergraduate senior thesis. The closest Brett Wigdortz, Teach First’s founder, has got to teaching is apparently various family members including his mother and brother. We have in other words an – admittedly impressive – undergrad thesis, adapted by an uncertified and untrained (in teaching) management consultant, as the template for one very possible future for teacher training and education reform in the UK.

20. The Status Quo Argument. Teach First could be said to present itself as anti-establishment. It sees itself as attacking the status quo. This is also how Teach For America is regarded as presenting itself. Yet, when we consider who funds Teach First, and Teach For America, then it is not as a challenge to the status quo that they should be perceived, but as helping to maintain it.

21. Others have highlighted the cult-like nature of Teach First – perhaps not helped by its choice of imagery and language. Just like one particularly well known cult/religion, moreover, there is also a noticeable lack of criticism of Teach First in the UK media. It’s as if some education journalists are scared to write anything at all critical for fear of the consequences for their employer, their career, and their working friendships. We then eagerly await the first truly balanced Teach First article in the mainstream UK media.

22. A final reason why Teach First may not be such a good idea is its potential long-term impact not just on disadvantaged kids, schools and well-established teacher training courses and institutions, but on local communities. In the US there is some suspicion that Teach For America is being used as a conduit through which its major benefactors are able to generate further profits through property deals. By investing in property on the pretext of social or regenerative housing, it is believed profit is being made by having such housing filled with Teach For America recruits with their tax-funded (and so guaranteed rent) salaries. If Teach For America recruits are in such housing then obviously local people are not.

There is then a potential double whammy. Inexperienced, undertrained ‘corporate’ recruits damage learning, and this neoliberal Trojan Horse damages the broader community too. This could mean disadvantaged communities will not just remain disadvantaged – their disadvantages will deepen.

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