TeachFirst and the colonisation of the classroom in #toughyoungteachers

Like many people, I began to watch BBC three’s new series Tough Young Teachers this week and saw first hand the initial experiences of trainee teachers following this route into teaching. What I wasn’t prepared for was how unsettling I was about to find the following thirty minutes of television. Having spent time in similar schools to those billed as ‘challenging’ by the programme, what I wasn’t prepared for was the unsettling class reproduction issues the show demonstrated.

TeachFirst is a program that according to their website aims to ‘find, train and support people to become brilliant teachers, inspiring the young people who need them the most’. This seems at the face of it a commendable aim and something nobody could argue is a good thing. The reality, however has some worrying facets to it. Like many other graduate programs, it aims to attract the ‘best’ graduates from the ‘best universities’. This notion of ‘the best’, often provides trainees that fit very clearly into a category of a privileged middle class, something that is examined in grater depth by Sarah Smart, Merryn Hutchings, Uvanney Maylor, Heather Mendick  & Ian Menter in their paper entitled ‘Processes of middle-class reproduction in a graduate employment scheme’. Here they explain how the processes of recruitment focus often narrow the frame of who is suitable to make it through the selection process.

What Smart and her colleagues also highlight is how the middle class position of the trainees often sets students apart from them as an ‘other’ someone who is not like them. The reason this felt so unsetting to me was that it resonated with discourses surrounding Empire and colonisation of uncivilised peoples that needed converting to the ways of thinking of those colonising them. This is exactly what I saw unfold on the screen. It felt more like a wildlife documentary than a program about teaching as the trainees were talking about the young people as if they weren’t equal humans but were some kind of animal that needed training. It was when one trainee was trying to explain negative numbers and using an analogy of scuba diving; something that was likely to be as alien to the child in question as the negative numbers themselves.

Perhaps the most enraging part of it was when one trainee said “I don’t care about them because they don’t care about learning”. To me, this showed their lack of empathy and understanding for young people who hadn’t followed the same learning trajectory as they did and hadn’t developed an early understanding of the value of education. Another trainee talked about not understanding why they didn’t care. I find it interesting that I never head similar from any trainee i’ve ever come in contact with and that makes me wonder if this is a danger of TeachFirst?

By training and working only with other trainees of a similar class background, does a middle-class picture of what education should be taint their understanding and view of the classroom before they even enter it? If so, does that prevent them from considering the diversity of learning paths and trajectories in order for all students to achieve and create a culture of support for those who can fit into a model of middle-class learning ideals, i.e supporting those who ‘care about learning’ and letting those who don’t, i.e. the ‘other’ to fall by the wayside?

It will be interesting to see if this class related divide does begin to reduce over time in the series or whether the idea of converting the students to a middle-class ideals remains a focus of the trainees efforts.


Sarah Smart , Merryn Hutchings , Uvanney Maylor , Heather Mendick & Ian Menter (2009) Processes of middle-class reproduction in a graduate employment scheme, Journal of Education and Work, 22:1, 35-53, DOI: 10.1080/13639080802709661 


6 thoughts on “TeachFirst and the colonisation of the classroom in #toughyoungteachers

  1. I felt the boys frustration when the new RE teacher wouldn’t listen to his feedback that the class was boring and that was why he couldn’t focus. Although the boys constant disruption must have been difficult to deal with, the boy had good points! Also, the teacher didn’t pick up on him saying he wants to be a history teacher. That could have been his way in to bond with the boy a bit more and explain how hard it is to be a teacher but perhaps they could help each other. Interesting programme, but I agree with your comments.

  2. As former a teacher this annoys the f**k out of me! Of course we should be attracting high calibre graduates to teaching but that’s only but through improved pay and conditions not bullshit schemes like this. A teacher’s subject knowledge and enthusiasm for her subject is relatively common; what’s rarer and equally important is the empathy and understanding necessary to form constructive, positive working relationships with young people from all backgrounds. On this evidence, albeit a constructed piece of reality TV, Teach First is the embodiment of Gove’s fantasy of how teaching works and a dysfunctional and damaging ideological experiment to, like you say, ‘convert’ young people. Also, people, who think there’s a man in the sky controlling things, if they can’t keep their views to themselves, should be kept out of classrooms.

    1. absolutely and if they want to retain the best graduates, developing those soft skills early on and allowing them autonomy to use their subject skills to inspire the next generation is key.

  3. Hi Jon,

    Thank you for your blog and sharing some questions about TF and the Tough Young Teachers programme here. I feel compelled to leave a comment because I fundamentally disagree with a few of your premises here and have some of my own questions in turn.

    Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that TF does a very good job of recruiting teachers from BME and non-middle-class backgrounds. As this article points out many TF trainees have no parental history of HE themselves. This is certainly my experience of the programme also where many of my peers came from very different backgrounds. During our trainee year we are not in some sort of ‘middle-class bubble’ (whatever that might be) as implied by the misconception that TF trainees are “training and working only with other trainees of a similar class background.” We are trained in schools and during the summer by university tutors and experienced teacher mentors in school. Some university tutors also teach on PGCE and SD schemes. My teaching qualification is from Canterbury Christ Church University – TF does not accredit its own in some sort of exclusive middle-class vacuum!

    Secondly, I’m worried about hugely generalising phrases like “a middle-class idea of what teaching should be”. Do you mean to suggest that because TF trainees have a 2:1 or above from a university they are indoctrinated to ignore kids that aren’t on track to get similar grades? What is the evidence for this other than an exasperated remark by one of the trainees in the TYT programme struggling with behaviour in his first week of teaching? I think it’s careless to extrapolate from this editorial decision (to leave this comment in the episode) to somehow suggest that TF trainees as a whole lack empathy. Even the scuba-diving example seemed to work for the girl in question – she was shown to be getting on with her exercises afterwards! This view of TF training couldn’t be further from the truth, in my experience. That’s why educational leaders such as Camilla Batmanghelidjh are given a regular platform at training, and why leaders such as Vanessa Ogden sit on the board of trustees and hold the organisation to account. For me “middle-class” just doesn’t work as a catch-all term. I’d prefer a Bourdieuian analysis that includes reference to cultural, social and economic capitals; in my view that’s when one gets onto the interesting stuff like what content should be taught in schools and how can other sectors of society be helped to see what teachers can see every day – that no matter their background children are children: i.e. individuals with bags of potential!

    Something grates with the parallel to colonisation in your analysis, not least that it seems to make a parallel between something relatively trivial, and the many deeply horrible aspects of colonisation as it really did happen. What you have are keen and young teachers selected for a programme about how difficult it is for keen and young teachers to begin learning how to teach. The poshness that we Brits seem so self-righteous and sensitive about does not deserve to be overplayed and over-analysed to the extent that it should considered some sort of colonisation of the poor by the rich, especially when the initial premise that TF is a proselytizing bastion of the snobbish middle-class.

    HOWEVER – that said – I think your blogpost is quite important to consider because it illustrates the way that TF is perceived by some in the education sector. When it comes to building consensus around improving education (as TF is aiming to do:, perception is in some ways as important as reality. As such, I’d agree with your final remark insofar as it would be a shame if posh vs poor was a continuous theme in the show.

    Thanks again for the blog and sorry if have rambled a bit too much!

  4. Michael Slav summed up most of the points that I wanted to make – these can be summarised by saying that even if your argument has got some salient points, such as the (awful) thing said about ‘I don’t care about them because they don’t care about learning’, you have tended to take an unnuanced leap into thinking that all people on this route would share that view. I can understand your fear about the ‘colonisation of the classroom’ by TeachFirst and I wanted to hear more about that idea!

    I think TeachFirst is a good scheme in itself, but the fact that it has been prioritised above all else – TF expands as the PGCE programmes are forced to close due to funding nationwide – – is worrying. It divides the workforce at a time when it needs more than ever to stand united. Gove treating TF as some sort of Ubermensch is not helpful for those on the scheme either – we tend to be acutely aware of our status as trainees requiring support because at the core of it, that’s what we are. Gove might view TF as a pedaogical strike force to declare war on low aspirations but we generally view ourselves as stressed teachers, just like the rest of the education family.

    Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

  5. Thanks for your post, Jon. I’ve come to Tough Young Teachers later than everyone else – I was busy when it was broadcast so I recorded it and have been catching up – have just watched the last episode today and promised I’d comment when I had.

    I wondered whether your thoughts changed as the series developed. I don’t think the issue of ‘class’ was overplayed, in the main – though the pheasant shoot episode was an interesting one, and I thought the decision to show Charles’ ‘dinner party’ was telling. But in the main it seemed to me that the main disconnect between the teachers and their more demanding pupils was more to do with attitudes towards learning/motivation than to do with background/social position.

    Oliver was the trainee who said, “I don’t care about them because they don’t care about learning”, and I agree with Michaelslav above that this was probably “an exasperated remark by one of the trainees in the TYT programme struggling with behaviour in his first week of teaching”. If were honest I suspect it’s something many of us have felt in our darkest moments. My initial thoughts was that this was someone who was highly intelligent, motivated and invariably successful at school, finding it difficult to connect with students whose attitude was very different. It was interesting that later we learnt that Oliver had ‘hated school’ and been unhappy and demotivated there. I felt heartened that he was one of the ones who was so positive about the job by the end of the year, and he was distraught on results day that his BTEC students hadn’t done as well as expected. Arguably that was probably partly because of how it reflected on his teaching (he was so determined to come out as ‘outstanding’) and not just concern for the learners. But those two things are closely bound together for many teachers. I’d suggest.

    I do think there’s a danger of assuming that in order to connect with students teachers need to have the same kind of background. I think it’s much more important to have the temperament and mindset that enables you to build connections with students in all contexts. I had a working class background and was the first in my family to get a degree, my parents both having left school at 14 (pre 1944 Education Act). After teaching in four state schools I became a deputy and then a head in two independent schools and some of those I taught there (though by no means all) had a very different upbringing to my own. But class seemed to me far less important than other factors in terms of building relationships and helping them to be the best they could be.

    Anyway, thanks again for the post. It did make me think, and the issues you raise are things I continued to think about as I watched the six episodes.

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