Defending Teach First and the 'Tough Young Teachers'

This is a guest post by @onlysarahc about a forthcoming BBC documentary. It follows the journey of six new Teach First employees as they take on the challenge of teaching in underprivileged schools straight out of university.

On the 9th, 'Tough Young Teachers', a TV series trailing six Teach First participants in London, will be aired on BBC3. Hopefully, there will be much debate, discussion and controversy surrounding it. Having experienced firsthand people’s personal attacks on Teach First I wanted to make my own contribution and highlight some of the salient issues that Teach First addresses; bridging social differences between people from very different backgrounds.

Flickr: Juska Wendland

I am a graduate of Warwick University. Regardless of the debate around access to higher education, it is fair to say that those who attend university are privileged; privileged to be in a position whereby they are able to attend, and privileged to have that education.  As Warwick Students and Alumni know, there is a certain level of arrogance associated with attending this Russell Group University in comparison to another local institution, Coventry University. I am the first to admit that during my time at Warwick I rarely ventured into the nearby city of Coventry, preferring to live in Royal Leamington Spa.

Now however, I am working in Coventry. My placement school for Teach First is only 4 miles away from the University campus, yet the story couldn’t be more different.  In my school, 56% of the students are eligible for free school meals - nearly double the national average. 89% of our students have English as an additional language and there are a wealth of social problems that come from living in such a deprived area. Furthermore, for the first time in my life really, I have experienced the prejudices and aggression from students who resent me for my ‘privileged education’ and I have learned that it takes a lot of hard work to earn their respect and overcome these prejudices.  

During my first term, I had to input data for my students’ realistic predicted grades and aspirational grades. I scoffed at some of the realistic predicted grades the school had given them, believing them to be unattainable for some students. The aspirational grades seemed ridiculous. But why? This, I argue, is where Teach First triumphs the most. It challenges misconceptions, prejudices and the arrogance of graduates like myself.

I am far from posh, I attended a comprehensive school that later became an academy. One of the reasons I chose Teach First as a training route is because it was the only way I could afford to pay and sustain myself through a PGCE and masters degree. It was the most attractive route into teaching, not so much because of the future career prospects it promised, but because it was financially viable. For the first time, the generation of participants taught by Teach First teachers themselves are entering the programme. This is symbolic of the successes that Teach First has enjoyed. I am no different than the children that I teach; I have learnt this from doing the programme, and from the fact that some of my peers in the same position as myself, are from the same background as those students that I am teaching.

It is true that Teach First has been vulnerable to numerous attacks. It can be considered a ‘glorified recruitment agency’, ‘cultish’ and ‘Americanized’. It is often seen as Michael Gove’s baby. But, this highlights another important thing I have learned; these political views can get in the way of relationships on a personal scale. I’ve experienced how school politics can be far more miserable than even the worst behaved child. I have been ignored, insulted and at the receiving end of unprofessional conduct by colleagues. They felt unable to put their personal grievances regarding Teach First aside and treat me as that which I am - a trainee. I have begun to realize that this politics can cause us to lose sight of what this is really all about - the education and learning of the students. And actually, if that is the focus, Teach First seems to be ticking all the right boxes. You only have to look at their latest annual report to see the successes that have been made.

As the name suggests, Teach First can be a stepping-stone to other careers. in reality, the retention rate of trainees is comparable to other routes into teaching. For those who do choose to leave teaching, however, I would argue that this is because teaching is not the most attractive career. The particular issues highlighted by the Teach First programme are certainly interesting. Indeed, I have never worked so hard, been so exhausted, been placed under so much scrutiny or worked through so many ‘holidays’ in my life. The salary, compared to my fellow graduates who chose to pursue careers in London, is significantly lower. As for those who do leave teaching and choose to pursue careers in consultancy etc., I find it hard to believe that they are not affected and changed by their experiences. In fact, it is a compliment that teaching can help develop such important transferable skills.

Sending graduates into deprived areas is a damn good idea. Teach First is helping to cross social boundaries in an entirely new way. Like many other students at Warwick, I studied and was interested in ‘development’, yet I never engaged in the community on my doorstep. I am sure that there are arrogant Teach Firsters who use their limited experience as a justification for maintaining ‘incredibly well informed’ political views of solutions. Yet for most participants, Teach First has made us question our views significantly. Certainly, the more you know and experience of something, the less clear-cut the solution seems.

Teach First is just a name (arguably a terrible name). It is just one of many routes into teaching and it has its place. It is easy to be critical and cynical about such programmes. It is far more interesting and constructive to provide realistic alternatives, yet very few critics of Teach First do this. For now however, Teach First appears to be enjoying many successes. Surely this is something to be celebrated rather than opposed?

The first episode of 'Tough Young Teachers' airs on BBC Three on the 9th January 2014 and continues for a six week run. What do you make of the Teach First programme? Tell us in the comments below.
Defending Teach First and the 'Tough Young Teachers' Defending Teach First and the 'Tough Young Teachers' Reviewed by Ciaran McCormick on 19:25 Rating: 5

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