It’s that time of year again, when adverts start appearing in newspapers and posters in tube stations, promising a life of ill-fitting business apparel and Tommy Cooper hand gestures in front of an attentive – nay, appreciative – audience. Yes, it’s being a teacher. Or the TDA’s version of it, anyway. In 2012, two graduates of my acquaintance fell for all that guff and embarked on their PGCEs. Missionary zeal? Yeah, kind of. Making a difference? That too. Management bollockspeak? Not at that point, praise be, though it doesn’t take long. So, how are they faring? Where, in the name of Billy Bob Thornton, are they now? A: last sighted starting first placement; no communication since; believed to be missing in action. B: decided to jump ship before finishing first placement, preferring the rocky crags and crashing waves of career uncertainty.
All things considered, B has made the right decision, what with the punishing hours, less-than-radioactively-glowing feedback and his underlying resistance to learning from others as he would be learned from. Better, all round, that he finds something else to twiddle. Still, it wasn’t as if he hadn’t been warned about the potential challenges: I’d dutifully donned my horns, job-shared the role of devil’s advocate with another ubergrump, and nursed cranial bruises when my head-butting failed to dent the armour of youthful (over-) confidence. As one of the maybe-sayers, I could extract a fair bit of schadenfreude from B’s departure. I suspect, however, that the rectitude of my miserabilist brayings will only add salt to the wounds already inflicted on his ego, so I’ll just say that I DID TELL HIM THIS COULD HAPPEN.
I now find myself fearing a little for another youngling – a TA in my current school – who has been accepted onto the Teach First programme. To be fair, this one not only possesses considerable promise but is also smart enough to see straight through a lot of the bovine effluence already thrown his way. He’s wondered, with a quizzical tilt of the head, about the other successful candidates he’s met for whom Teach First is an anomaly, all other applications having been made to corporate graduate training schemes (Accenture, PWC and so on). He’s compared the Teach First input he’s received so far to initiation into a cult, in which members are programmed to see themselves as the saviours of education or as colonial masters, charged with managing the restless natives. And, rather ‘interestingly’, he’ll be told the name of his placement school once the numbers and whereabouts of teaching resignations in the area are known. A training scheme or a way of staffing schools at knock-down prices?
To be fair, the Stepford Wife stuff shouldn’t bother me. Why else am I forced to sit through a mind-numbing staff meeting each week, in which the agenda has been stitched up more tightly than a nun’s untergarments, and I’m expected to wiggle my fingers to show I’ve finished the starter activity? To be fairer, I’m approaching this topic in a slightly-less-than-objective frame of mind, as I have an inherent problem with a programme that implicitly defines teaching as a short-term undertaking, and whose subtextual message seems to be ‘Teach first; do a proper job later’. And yet, two successive governments have seen fit to lob increasing amounts of public money at this thing, while its CEO has been new-year-honoured. I do love the way Dvorak’s New World Symphony weaves through the air whenever I mount my penny-farthing.
The thing is, I trust governments with education as much as I’d trust my mum with successful child-rearing. And as for honours, ‘You’ve Been Tangoed’ sounds like a helluva lot more fun. Surely a training scheme that only manages to keep just over 50% of its graduates in the profession it lauds is rather less of a success than I am being told? And no better than PGCE courses with similar drop-out/burn-out rates? No, hang on a second: those who leave the classroom the microsecond that their two years with Teach First are over, are not refugees; they’re ‘Teach First Ambassadors’, eulogising the career they fled from the safety of the other environments – Accenture, peut etre, or PWC maybe. My apologies.
Over the past month or so, a few dribbles of disquiet have leaked incontinently from the scouts at Camp Brainy, courtesy of the TES letters page. Concerns voiced by Teach First trainees that school leaders are advocating unethical methods to push up their headline figures (perish the thought); are expecting newbies with a crumb of training to keep pace with much more experienced staff (well, they are being paid to train); and are relying on “draconian” management styles and “poisonous” atmospheres to achieve all of the above (ooh, Matron). When asked if they intended to stay in teaching beyond the term of their training, the general consensus among the recruits to whom the TES letter writer spoke was admirably unambiguous: “Do I f***!”
So, let’s see Teach First for what it may really be: not just a way of sprinkling Russell Group fairy dust over the nation’s schools, none of which has ever managed to recruit a single bright graduate from a good university before (helpfully, I’m averting my gaze from class-of-degree inflation); but also, a piece in the policy jigsaw whose aim is to turn teaching into a poorly-paid, short-term and, possibly, casualised occupation, from which to flee or be ejected as soon as humanly possible.
When’s that recruitment fair?