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.

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