Tag Archives: Teach First

Pedigree Chums

A friend of my mother used to have a pure-bred dog. I didn’t much care for him but, sure as eggs is both subject and predicate noun in an ungrammatical sentence, I felt sorry for the little beast on account of his physiognomy. With his flat nose and attendant respiratory problems, he looked as pissed off as I would if my every attempt at a surprise entrance was thwarted by the necessity of exhalation.

On the whole, inbreeding isn’t our friend. It’s often borne of unlovely motives, and it often births unfortunate forms – things, for instance, that look vegetable when they be animal. Just in case you’re feeling contrary, consider the evidence: some of the offspring of Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche’s Nueva Germanica project; the hillbillies in Deliverance, with their crossbows and toothless gums and squealin’ pigs; even more alarming, generations of royals.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner. Born within the city, it’s been impossible to spend 84% of my life there and not shudder a little at the contraction of its social ‘gene pool’. And not just in those central parts, where oligarchs keep their gardening tools in penthouses overlooking Her Madge’s potting shed. The creep of so-called gentrification into the unlikeliest corners continues to force to the outskirts almost anyone unable to afford extortionate rents or house prices that look as if a button on a calculator has been held down too long. Those in social housing, especially, are being removed to the outskirts of the outskirts.

As an illustration of the homogeneity in some London boroughs, consider my own circumstances. With a pretty solidly middle-class background (a slightly posh education and a trickle of money in the family) I’m a bit of an anomaly in the area where I live. When I speak, I use consonants as well as vowels. By not installing plantation shutters, I have resisted pretending that the Empire still exists. And my name doesn’t end in ‘o’, like all the Ivos, Hugos and Jagos in the surrounding streets (‘Psycho’ not being eligible for consideration, apparently). None of this would have been remarkable, say, twenty years ago – but it’s becoming so.

Maybe it’s because I’m an educator. I worry about other, comparably diminishing ‘gene pools’ – professional ones, for instance – which are, sometimes, a consequence of the social apartheid outlined above. When I started this teaching malarkey, I was taken (but not aback) by the diversity of the workforce in schools. It was a mongrel profession, boasting the kind of vigorously heterogeneous constitution that prevented it from being congenitally boss-eyed. To be fair, that is still largely the case among the rank-and-file. What is less clear is whether it is so among the movers, shakers and policy-makers who, following intense training in a narrow set of pedagogic ideas, have been invited to help lay the path down which education is to skip.

Few classroom teachers are permitted a say in policy decisions, so I should welcome anything that reverses this dynamic. However, I cannot help but have misgivings when our frighteningly variegated government extends such opportunities only to those who entered teaching via certain routes, such as Teach First and Future Leaders, while withholding them from the overwhelming majority of the workforce – many of whom have a far wider, deeper bedrock of experience on which to mount their criticisms and suggestions. While no passage into the profession is devoid of ideological bias, it does appear that a particular weltanschauung is being promoted above all others.

The airtime given to this band of, no doubt well-intentioned, leader-followers exacerbates the problem. Some have become conference speakers and go-to talking heads within a year of achieving Qualified Teacher Status. Just last week, for instance, I read a piece of punditry in an online publication which, to ensure its anonymity, I shall call the Puffington Host. I recognised the author as a graduate of an ‘elite’ training programme and marvelled when, over the course of his article, he lauded KIPP, cheered on charter schools and admiringly name-checked a small coterie of individuals who, it turned out, were also graduates of the same scheme. Who’d-a-guessed?

So effusive was the writer’s enthusiasm for a particular free school that I was compelled to peruse its website, as a result of which I found that its teaching staff consisted, almost entirely, of the programme’s alumnae: shiny-white, neatly-scrubbed, very young graduates of a few universities that, perhaps, tend to attract those who, in addition to being bright, play by/perpetuate existing rules. One is married to a very young, neatly scrubbed and shiny-white head teacher at another school that is staffed, almost entirely, by more of the same. The effect was like that achieved in a room full of mirrors, with the same image repeated ad infinitum. I was subjected to such an experience while relieving myself in the looking-glass loos of a posh restaurant. Not recommended.

Lest such an accusation be levelled, m’lud, let the record show that my words are not the result of imbibing a cellarful of sour grapes. I have, in other posts, alluded immodestly to some rather good qualifications, and I remain unplagued by hankerings after glory in the guise of promotion – as amply corroborated/thwarted by other posts on this site. And, on no account, should whatever emerges when I’ve plonked at my laptop like Scott Joplin on a massive bender be seen as punditry (though it may be covered by the UN Convention against Torture). I’m just not sure that schools benefit much when their staff photos look like Osmonds album covers.

Or, to put it another away, the preceding paragraphs emerge from empirical knowledge that schools function at their best when populated by clever staff with a range of ideas and histories. They also emerge from concerns similar to those of, among others, Chris Bryant MoP and Dame Julie of Walters: that certain professions are so heavily dominated by a tiny and privileged sector of society as to be almost prohibitive to anyone else. Education leadership simply cannot afford to become another of those spheres, if only to ensure the (continued) existence of a capacity for debate, and the strength to occasionally ask itself some bloody awkward questions.

Because, without those qualities, we’re purdy much on our way to the dawgs.


Blood On The Training Tracks

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?