Tough Young Teachers: is Teach First a good deal?

Teacher in Class. Pic: Prime Education

Teacher in Class. Pic: Prime Education

‘Tough Young Teachers’, a new BBC series, is following six Teach First trainees at ‘deprived’ schools including Croydon’s Archbishop Lanfranc.

In the four remaining episodes we will discover whether the TV treatment will improve Lanfranc’s future as ‘Educating Yorkshire’ did for Thornhill Academy, or if it is more likely to go down the ‘Benefits Street’.

The charity Teach First has been running for over a decade and was recently declared the biggest graduate recruiter in the UK, with 1,261 trainees starting in 2013.

David Cameron is a fan of the project, which receives some central government funding. In its mission to “fight education inequality,” Teach First now reaches 980 institutions across the country and is aiming to take on over 2,000 graduates a year by 2015.

Support from the establishment came also from Ofsted chief inspector Michael Wilshaw, who only last week declared: “Thanks to initiatives like Teach First, some of our most aspirational and gifted graduates are choosing to enter the profession.”

After a meagre six weeks intensive training, Teach First’s “outstanding graduates” are thrown in at the deep end in underprivileged areas where they will have to teach for two years. They are not assured a job at the end of the programme and many in the past have opted for alternative careers after completion.

While the BBC casts an understanding glance on the trainee’s struggles, the schools they’re working at don’t necessarily receive the same treatment. Lanfranc’s first on-screen appearance shows us the school quite literally “sinking into rubbish” – it is in fact built over a landfill. Head teacher, David Clarke, has since complained to the Croydon Advertiser about what he believes to be a misrepresentation of the school’s atmosphere, because of the film crew’s focussing only on disruptive personalities.

Teach First trainee, Chloe Shaw, admits that if they were not “naïve and enthusiastic people would not approach a school like Lanfranc” with its “poor results, poor behaviour and crumbling down building”.

Thornhill Academy’s day-to-day classroom dramas were hailed by the public as heroic feats worthy of celebration, and the school’s post-Educating Yorkshire popularity improved steeply. But Thornhill already had Ofsted’s “good” stamp of approval, and scooped up the title of most improved school in West Yorkshire. After the show it has allegedly tripled its open-days attendance and will probably be oversubscribed in the next academic year.

Lanfranc, on the other hand, recently got downgraded to ‘unsatisfactory’ in an area where only 69% of children go to schools ranked ‘good or above’.

Even if applications were to rise after ‘Tough Young Teachers’, the school may not be able to meet demands. Designed for 800 pupils, it now has 1,000 enrolled, which means that there is not enough space for everyone to sit during lunch breaks.

Teach First believes that the BBC show provides: “An opportunity to inspire change and generate awareness of the problems faced by young people from disadvantaged backgrounds”. Some ex-Teach First trainees seem to share this positive view:

Ian White, who taught at Croydon’s Addington High School for two years, found it a positive experience. “Teach First was welcomed with open arms into the school I worked at. Despite it being one of the most difficult schools on the programme’s books, I felt valued and respected as a member of staff from a very early stage,” he says. “The graduates obviously benefit from the experience but it’s the schools which seem particularly keen to hire them.”

Despite detractors claiming that putting harder schools in the hands of unprepared teachers is not answering their need for above-average quality in teaching, Teach First reiterates that people can only really learn the profession on the job, and that 70 per cent of them end up staying in the career.

Ofsted also point out that out of all training schemes available for graduates, Teach First is one of the most selective – according to the inspecting body, there is only one place available per seven applicants, against a 2:1 ratio for PGCE student.

However the Chief Inspector encouraged competition to become even higher to increase standards of entry, and declared Ofsted will get “much tougher on providers, as well as with schools that don’t adequately support those new to the profession”. “In my view”, said Wilshaw “there is no such thing as a bad Newly Qualified Teacher, just one that is badly trained, poorly accredited and badly supported”.

This was not White’s experience: “There is an extent to which teachers have to be left alone to do their job. As a Teach First trainee you need to learn your craft fast, and that can’t be done by having your hand held. Having said that, my school was supportive when I needed them, trained me once a week in a professional setting and was always there for pastoral support if needed”.

“It is the areas of deprivation which lead to schools we would classify as ‘tough’”, says White, “To this extent working in these kinds of schools can only have limited social impact. It is possible to change individual lives but far more difficult to transform a local area.”

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