The superiority complex of the TeachFirst model

Michael Slavinsky, the Programme director for The Brilliant Club wrote a well reasoned response to my previous blog on TeachFirst which I felt deserved a slightly more in depth and argued response than would be possible in a comment box. Firstly, let me say I have no issues with the individual teachers who pass through the TeachFirst program. I am sure there are many that undertake the program with the same attitude of any other teacher trainee, my issue however is with the philosophy espoused by the program. I strongly support the idea of every child getting the best education for them, but i’m concerned that the model that is promoted by TeachFirst may not always offer the chances that are most suitable for every child.

The initial issue with me originates in the title of the programme: TeachFirst. The fact that it is something to do before going on to better things, expressly leadership and management roles. This is one place where I think the idea is flawed. Teaching is a vocation and something that requires a special sort of person to do well and that should be celebrated and applauded, not seen as something to do on the way to better things, or something to do if your planned career didn’t work out.

My second issue with the model is the transformative nature, the way these trainees are given the status of miracle workers that can fix problems in challenging schools, as if it is the only way and that existing teachers are ‘not good enough’. I think this is one thing that troubled me the most. In their first few weeks, many trainees, including myself, struggle to get the engagement of a class to maintain the required pace of learning. Certainly in my placements, this was addressed by gradual introduction to teaching through starters, team teaching and finally to full lessons. From the portrayal in the program it seems that these trainees were thrown in with a full class on the first day. To me, this is not fair on the children. They may have an excellent subject knowledge, but is does not always translate to the ability to teach. In my mind it is a craft that needs to be learnt and it seems that the model does not allow the space for this although I am more than happy to be corrected on this point if anyone knows differently.

This brings me onto the third point, that of class and portrayal. Michael mentions that the program has many BME entrants or those from non middle-class backgrounds. I would argue, however, that this does not separate the issue that they are bringing in a class based model of what aspiration is. The notion of them being ‘good’ graduates of a ‘good’ university creates an other ing notion of ‘poor’ degrees from ‘poor’ universities. I will to examine this in more depth in a later blog as it is a loaded argument but a key one in order to drill down to one of the areas that I find the most unsettling.

I want to finish by extending an invitation to those readers who disagree with what I am saying. My vision of TeachFirst is that which is portrayed through a lens of TV producers and Marketing literature. If I am wrong, show me. Point me to the graduates that have been accepted from non-Russell group universities and let them tell their stories. Like many people my concern is that every young person has the chance to aspire to what they want to do and be, not what a classed model of society says they should be. For some of them, these paths will be the same, for others they will be very different but I am interested in seeing evidence that every type of aspiration is being valued by the trainees of the model, from the future mechanics and doctors, to the future artists and sports coaches.


3 thoughts on “The superiority complex of the TeachFirst model

  1. Mr Rainford, thank you for your thoughtful posts on Teach First and class. There’s much to say, and so I hope that you’ll excuse my candour. I did enjoy reading your articles and think that they are a helpful contribution to the inevitable debate that has followed the documentary.

    So, being a non-russell group, free school receivin’ Teach Firster, I humbly accept your invitation to throw in my two-penneth. Clearly, I qualify your class test. Apologies for the contempt, but this does bring me on to my first point…

    I think that your obsession with class is tremendously unhelpful, and would like to point out a few assumptions that you have made which I consider to be irresponsibly ill-grounded. I hope that this may cause you to question your own Weltanschauung, perhaps one that you have projected on to the programme with which you have taken such issue.

    It’s difficult to argue against your “point” of class and portrayal, because I’m not sure exactly what you mean by class. It seems to have arisen primarily from the fact that a teacher attempted to explain negative numbers by using the real-life example of a scuba diver. You then assumed (presumably because he had a posh voice) that the teacher in question bloody loves scuba diving and goes all of the time, and also that the girl (presumably because she looks like she could well be poor) has no idea what scuba diving is. The example, you concluded, was irrelevant to the girl and showed just how out of touch and unempathetic this teacher was.

    Well, it doesn’t much matter whether or not you’ve been scuba diving – does it? It was an illustrative example aimed at making an abstract concept into something a little more concrete. The imagery works just as well whether you have been scuba-diving or not. For example, I have never been scuba-diving but I still understood the illustration.

    Does having a 2.1 or first make you a good teacher? Of course not. Neither, of course, does having a 2.2 or a third. It’s incredibly difficult to assess just what makes a potentially great teacher. TF recruits based on this minimum academic requirement (which indicates that candidates have a flair for their subject, work bloody hard, or both) along with 7 core ‘competencies’ (including humility, respect and empathy).

    Your wider point of aspiration is very important. Your key concern is that TFers are ‘given the status… of miracle workers’. Who gives them this status? Teach First is quite clear that is not not a panacea to educational inequality, and that closing the gap between education attainment and family income requires a multitude of initiatives due to the complexity of the problem.

    Should all children be encouraged to go to university? I think that this is an open question, and must admit that I share your concerns of this being the only result to be celebrated. It cannot be denied, however, that university graduates are paid more and are generally happier, on average. University, I might suggest, is also the best example of a social mobility machine that we have. Get a decent degree and doors open, regardless of your family background. I don’t think that teachers (TF or otherwise) are particularly concerned with getting children to uni though. I think that getting them out of school with the best qualifications possible is the aim, because that is the clearest way to ensure equality of opportunity. I think that this is an interesting debate. I’d be genuinely interested to hear whether you think everyone going to university would be a bad idea?

    Lastly, the name Teach First. I agree that it’s terrible and sends completely the wrong message. It does, I concur, send the message that teaching is something to do until ‘something better comes along’, and I think that the name is most regrettable. I do, however, think that it is literally impossible to assess (or condition) that someone who wants to enter teaching must do some sort of minimum service. I’m sure that you’re aware that TF retention rates are comparable to a traditional PGCE route, despite the fact that TF only works in challenging schools with generally high staff turnover. If someone does leave TF to become a banker or politician, however, at least that’s one more banker or politician with a clearer understanding of what it’s like for people in the bottom three deciles of the socioeconomic pile.

    I welcome your rejoinder.

  2. P.s. You were particularly aggrieved at the use of “good” graduates. I cheekily quote to you from your own blog:

    “Every fully qualified secondary teacher has spent at least 4 years at university and has a good degree, and a postgraduate qualification. That investment of time and energy into education surely deserves to be rewarded effectively otherwise how does this country have any hope of attracting good quality teachers?”

    1. I will respond fully when I have a chance but let me just clarify, I have no problem with the notion of a ‘good’ degree in terms of a 2.1 or above, what I take issue with is the notion of a ‘good university’ which is generally equated with oxbridge / Russell group vs. everyone else.

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