Teach First needs to get its message right if it is to be more than just a policy placebo

potato advertRather unwittingly I seem to have hit a raw nerve with my Teach First BLOG. It was somewhat unexpected. I was really commenting on what seemed to me to be a disingenuous advert making silly claims.

In terms of silliness it is up there with the “for mash get smash” advert from the seventies. You know the one where the laughing robots aim to find out what “humans” eat and discover the potato.

I thought I would clear up some issues. It wasn’t intended to question Teach First graduates but rather it was an attempt to pass comment on the relationship between social inequality and educational unfairness. Anyone who is committed to spending time in low income schools is to be credited. It’s clear that many do go on to a career in education.

The claim in the advert is that education in the UK is a “national scandal”. It links intractable social issues with educational achievement, which seems to me to be a reasonable thing to do.  But then describes it as educational unfairness, which is not a fair or accurate thing to do. Education cannot reasonably be expected to resolve intractable social issues. In fact education could always be described as being in some kind of crisis based on the premise that social inequity is caused, and resolved, by education. It isn’t and it can’t.

The local comprehensive is presented as a problem. The cause of social inequality. The suspicion is that  those with free market ideological agendas have used similar arguments to make some quite significant structural changes to education. As Michael Wilshaw recently stated they have made them to little effect. Good teaching is dependent upon; good teachers, good leadership and a positive culture. In the United States, where the Teach First model was developed, this strategy has been successful in undermining public (state) education.

Re-branding a school as an academy will make little difference in the long run. Of course, saying the blatantly obvious has consequences if the blatantly obvious conflicts with the vested interests that now exist in education. In reality it seems that ideological change is not intended to improve education but is part of a larger agenda to shrink the state and put assets into the hands of social entrepreneurs. If education improves as well then so be it but it’s not the main driver of change.

The research related to Teach First is somewhat contested. One fact that seems to be unassailable is that Teach First does little harm at this point in time. The education system isn’t going to collapse because of Teach First. At worst it has no effect; at best it improves results slightly. One research report in the UK by Mujis et al made enhanced claims for Teach First but their claims are contested not least because it was funded by Goldman Sachs but also because of methodological issues.

There are also wider issues that impact upon the data. The programme is linked to Academies who may well have had changes to leadership co-coinciding with the advent of the Teach First programme.  The research alludes to this problem, and others, but, as yet I haven’t seen research that resolves the issues one way or another.

In terms of retention the figures are also difficult to ascertain. Teach First seem to suggest that around 60 – 70 per cent of the 58 per cent who remain in education at the completion the Teach First programme also stay in low income schools. I can’t contextualise that figure in terms of other training providers because I haven’t got the data but, in itself, it isn’t unimpressive. Of that figure significantly less remain as teachers.

The figures triangulates with statistics from other government sources and for Teach for America. In the US independent evidence suggests that the figure for those remaining with their initial school for two years is also less than 50 per cent. After 5 years few are still at their original schools. Again I can’t contextualise the data it’s quite possible that new teachers leave their original schools within 5 years.

So what is the point of Teach First? Well it may well attract better quality graduates to the profession. It’s messages are mixed because, in order to get across that message, it effectively has to suggest that the profession is a stepping stone to something better.

If Teach First has something  meaningful to offer the education system it is in the fact that it does have an innovative model offering interesting data about how to train new teachers and teacher effectiveness.   What it shouldn’t be is yet another pointless vested interest in a system that is increasingly being undermined by pointless vested interests whether they be; academy chains, exam boards, technology companies or free newspapers.

The problem for me and, judging from the response, many others, is that it looks like an abdication of responsibility on behalf of policy makers;  little more than a policy placebo that buys time for policy makers whilst they pursue ideologically driven structural changes to the education system. In other words no policy is the policy. This is well documented in both the English education system and in the US. It’s a worry that as a society we may no longer care enough about inequality to make a serious effort to resolve it.

I have no philosophical problems with social enterprises and charities filling in the policy gaps, which governments cannot resolve for whatever reason. The difference is when those same organisations start running high profile campaigns suggesting that “local comprehensives” are responsible for social inequality. Teach First needs to get its message right if it is to be more than just a policy placebo.

Merry Christmas everyone and thanks for reading. Let’s hope for more educational harmony in 2015…!




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