On Tuesday, Teach First tweeted about someone who graduated from the programme and now runs an investment banking consultancy (see below). For some, the tweet confirmed that the organisation is not interested in recruiting and retaining teachers, but instead, is a stepping stone for ambitious, silver-spoon grads to cushy jobs in the City. The charity apologised for the tweet, saying: ‘this wasn’t the right message’ and CEO, Russell Hobby, defended the organisation in the TES.
Sanna graduated from KCL in 2009 in Computing, going straight on to the Teach First Programme in London. She now runs her own independent consultancy in investment banking.
— Teach First (@TeachFirst) October 23, 2018
I should make it clear that I am a Teach First ambassador and so am personally invested in the issue. The programme is intensive and extremely challenging, but well-structured and has great potential to affect real social change. Unlike other teacher training routes, it is focused on a very specific objective or ‘mission’. The charity’s aim is to address educational disadvantage and the way in which it attempts to do this is by encouraging talented, motivated people into the profession, including many who would not otherwise consider it.
Over the years Teach First has attracted a lot of criticism, some of it justified, some of it misinformed. There is an instinctive mistrust of the organisation from many on the left, who see it as a kind of free-market, corporate crutch complicit in crippling Tory cuts. For many, Tuesday’s tweet confirms this criticism.
It is true that Teach First draws upon the aspects of the corporate world in its recruitment process. The glass and steel head office by London Bridge is nestled between City Hall and PWC. Its website is glossy and its pitch is slick. Large consultancy and accountancy firms have a strong presence at UK universities, answering students’ questions of ‘what next?’ with the resounding answer of ‘work for us!’ Teach First has successfully copied this approach and can also be found on campuses around the country, regularly appearing as one of The Times’ top graduate employers. However, unlike many other recruiters, they are pitching social change rather than self enrichment.
Addressing educational disadvantage is the central message, but part of this pitch is also about the options you will have if you decide that teaching isn’t for you. The expectation that graduates commit, unwaveringly, to a lifetime in a single career is unreasonable. It’s a good recruitment strategy to say to potential teachers that, if it doesn’t work out, the programme will put you in a position where you can look for good career alternatives. Teachers shouldn’t be trapped in a profession they no longer want to be in. Even with these post Teach First options, committing to at least two years working in some of the most challenging schools in the country, is not a decision you make lightly (and seems like an unnecessarily difficult way into a career in investment banking).
Despite this, the response to this tweet does raise important questions about retention and value for money. Teach First receives a large amount of public money, and Teach First teachers cost £14,000 more than those who follow any other route. If these teachers are then leaving the profession shortly after completing the programme, this does not demonstrate good value for money, regardless of the quality of the teachers.
IFS research from 2016 showed that 60% of Teach First teachers had left the profession after five years, compared to 40% of teachers across all training routes. Some would argue that this difference is because Teach First recruits teachers who never intend to stay much beyond the two years of the programme. However, it also needs to be recognised that, by design, Teach First teachers work in schools with a higher proportion of students from low income backgrounds; schools which tend to have higher staff turnover. The question is whether the retention rate between Teach First teachers and teachers from other training routes is comparable when we control for the type of schools these teachers are working in. Moreover, how does the quality of these teachers differ? If Teach First can show their teachers are more effective, does this make up for the lower retention rate?
Providing evidence for teacher efficacy is challenging. Teach First’s training programme receives high praise from Ofsted and 89% of head teachers say they would recommend working with Teach First. My own experience of the programme was positive and consisted of two years of intensive lesson observation, classes, research and essay-writing. Teach First teachers are almost always reflective and see teaching within the context of social change and challenging disadvantage (though by no means have a monopoly on these traits).
Teacher recruitment and retention is a serious issue in the UK and though Teach First can be an important source of recruitment for many struggling schools, it is not going to solve the problem, but it probably makes it better. The government is responsible for stagnant teacher pay, real term cuts to school funding, and cuts to the services that support students and their families outside the school gate. We should ask Teach First difficult questions about teacher retention and impact, but trying to get a few more would-be investment bankers to instead think about teaching is no bad thing.