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Monday, 22 November 2010

The Reality of Teach First

I have just been in a lecture in which a comment from the floor led to an interaction with the lecturer about the differences between a PGCE and Teach First. The student's suggestion, which was agreed with by the lecturer, was that a PGCE showed a greater devotion to 'being a teacher' and that Teach First is used as a gateway to a better-paid job in the city.

There was a general consensus around this point, which is borne most likely out of 1) the majority of students in the lecture being members of the established Education Faculty, 2) a considerable number of the students in the lecture having applied for PGCE. Feeling the pressure of looking up and seeing people looking towards me, as the tokenistic Teach Firster. The lecturer repeated the point about it being a stepping stone to high salaries in the city and I joked with those beside me that that was my reason - but it quite obviously isn't.

First criticism, the idea of a PGCE showing a better devotion to being a teacher. What does this actually mean? I might go along with that to the extent that 'being a teacher' relates to a particular sort of teacher role, sacrosanct in the collective consciece, of the teacher as a straight-and-narrow, this is my life, I'm in it for the kids attitude. Maybe so. Long term devotion to being a teacher does not imply an ability to teach. Not to tar all with the same brush at all, but drawing from my own experiences, the best teachers I had were those who didn't see teaching as a devotion to their role as a teacher; the better teachers were in fact those who had wide knowledge base, were engaged and interested in what was going on in the world outside the school and were actually quite brutally cynical about being teachers. Those teachers who seemed to enter out of devotion stultified their own creativity as their focus was on themselves - on their role as teacher and their role as teacher-with-pupils - rather than on the furtherance of the genuine knowledge and intellect and innovation of the pupils. Some of the teachers most devoted to the role make the best teachers, but this devotion is not in itself a merit - the merit of a teacher should be in their capacity to teach and although their enjoyment in the job is quite obviously beneficial for all, it is not, as an isolating thing, going to bring any benefit whatsoever to the education of the children.

Second, the idea that it is the permanence of one's role as a teacher that qualifies one's capacity to teach is flawed. The criticism of Teach First as a gateway to the city reflects the mirror image of the PGCE as a door which slams behind you as you enter. Experienced teachers certainly amass heaps of practicable knowledge from their time within the school, but again, the overarching notion of 'experience = ability to teach' is absolutely flawed. An independent study of the effectiveness of Teach First, published only last week by a team from the University of Manchester, yielded this, among its key findings.

Observations that the teaching practices of Teach First teachers in their first year are good to excellent – in international comparisons they were generally on a par with or ahead of more experienced teachers.

Teachers who are in the school for at least two years (and it is useful to remember that the majority stay on beyond those two years) are able to make a huge impact, to the benefit of their pupils - 'partnering with Teach First explains between 20% and 40% of the between-school variance in pupil performance at GCSE. This difference – the researchers estimate – equates to approximately a third of a GCSE per pupil per subject'. Simply put, the fact that a teacher may or may not intend to continue in teaching into their foreseeable future has no impact on their skill and competence as a teacher.

And a final appraisal of Teach First against the fallacies which support the PGCE relates to what often appears as the most contentious idea: that of the teachers specifically moving on to high paid work in the elite corporations of the city. Undoubtedly, a considerable number of teachers in Teach First move on into better paid, high-status roles in other spheres of professional life - this is not necessarily a bad thing. It could only be seen as a negative in itself if one holds onto the view of teaching as some individual act of passion and this, although most often well-intentioned, does not always benefit the children one teaches. The teacher is not beholden to the future generations of children he or she may or may not teach - their loyalty and their mission is to inspire, educate, empower and facilitate the pupils currently under their watch. The fact that you want to be a teacher after graduation does not automatically make your essays inferior to those of a peer who wishes to work in academia.

The effectiveness of a teacher should be judged upon the impact their teaching has on the pupils in their charge - this impact could be academic, but could also be pastoral, aspirational, social and mental. The reason they go into it and their future plans may well affect the impact they have on their pupils, but these impacts will be as varied as the individual teachers themselves.

It is all very well and good to want to enter education out of a devotion to being a teacher but that is not why I want to do it - I want to go into teaching because I want to teach and I would like my pupils to learn: they sound similar but are very different.


  1. You are arguing that one's devotion to teaching bears no relation to the quality of teaching that you deliver. I believe you, but you don't seem to be arguing against anyone. From what you describe, you are arguing against PGCE students who think that people with the devotion to teach are morally better, not better at teaching. They probably think that whether you go down the PGCE or Teach First route reflects more about the actual person than how well they can teach. They probably think you're more genuine if you go down the PGCE route.

  2. I would be very concerned about anyone who wants to enter the teaching profession by any route who is dismissive of all others. Why can't there be more than one way to become a teacher? Is an ITT student who trains for a number of years to become a teacher more dedicated that someone who chooses a PGCE after another degree? I doubt anyone would argue so. I don't think that it's a case of who is more dedicated. There will always be good and bad
    teachers in any route into the profession, we don't live in a perfect world. If some high-flying graduates want an assult-course like reality check before becoming CEO of some company then why not Teach First? They might just earn respect for teaching!
    If some sheltered idealistic moron wants to do a PGCE and drift into a cunt-filled private school then let them! They might realise that there are children born.

    Teach First teaches some of the best graduates in the country that education is important, and difficult,creating more respect for the teaching profession.

    Oh and I wonder how many PGCE applicants in that lecture have applied to more than just Cambridge, not many? Didn't think so, real dedication guys!

    Don't criticise each other for being different. The more people these kids have fighting for them the better and if anyone can help them
    get a better start in life then I don't give a fuck how they get there!

    Frankly I don't give a shit whether you're doing a PGCE or Teach First, it's about the children not you, you arrogant wankers.

  3. Just a small comment. The Teach First study isn't comparing like with like in this situation. The study is comparing Teach First 'graduates' with people who have graduated the PGCE course. The majority of PGCE students would not be capable of doing the Teach First course - they simply wouldn't have the academic performance required.

    I'd argue that not only is teacher competence associated with a passion for the subject, but academic ability in a student is associated with passion for the subject ( which probably contributes to why Teach First graduates give good results as they are able to pass on this passion in the subject ).

    Graduates of a University who have shown high academic ability (by being at the University in the first place and achieving the academic performance at the end) are likely to have a greater passion for the subject which makes them better teachers, and have a greater depth in the subject and so are able to explain it to students better.

    A more interesting study from my point of view would be to compare Teach First 'graduates' with PGCE graduates who would have been accepted onto the Teach First course. I suspect the difference between the two cohorts is far smaller. Personally I would suspect to see stronger teachers from the PGCE group, but I don't have the data to back this up, as they have been through a more rigorous training course and potentially have a greater passion for teaching. As such, I would recommend that if you are serious about doing teaching long term, a PGCE may be a better bet - but I doubt there is much difference.

    Overall, I agree with Alex though - it's about providing children with the best resources in order to do well, and if Teach First provides some children with a greater opportunity then it is a worthwhile thing. Personally I think in the long term more radical changes are required to entice high flying graduates to consider teaching as a viable option.