Top 5 Myths About TeachFirst

People inevitably differ on opinions about TeachFirst, the training route for “high-achieving graduates”. We can debate those opinions all day and I’m happy to do so. But too often those debates are hampered by ideas about TeachFirst which simply aren’t true. So, below, I’ve written out the main ones and tried to put the record straight. What I have written is based on my years as a participant (2006-08), then a tutor, then an in-school participant mentor.
1. TeachFirsters only have six weeks of training. Categorically not true. Yes, participants do a six-week Summer Institute before starting in their classrooms. Think of it as a really really intensive way of doing those first PGCE bits (nb: it’s residential, 6 weeks, twelve hour days). And don’t worry, the tutors at the Institute are HE tutors – many of whom have worked for years with PGCE and GTPs, or still do alongside their TF work. Even so, this is not all of the training. For the whole first year participants also have two HE tutors – a professional and a subject one – who observe them regularly. They have an in-school mentor and a TeachFirst Learning Development Officer. They do similar essays to PGCE students (theory, development, SEN, etc). They complete their QTS folder (like everyone else), and they attend half-termly day-release subject training sessions. Beyond that there are optional activities: conference, evening workshops, and there is the online community where you can gain help or discuss issues. Oh, and there’s the journal – with weekly reflections. All this, plus having their own classes that regularly monitored and observed in-school. Hence, to suggest that TeachFirsters “only have six weeks training” is not only wrong, but when you have been through the programme it actually feels quite insulting.
2. TeachFirst only takes the “brightest” students, but being bright doesn’t mean you can teach. Of all  the myths, this drives me most daft. If accurate, it would read: “TeachFirst doesn’t even take the “brightest” students”. Academically you do need to be decent: a 2:1 or above (from any university). But on its own, that’s not enough. There are also 8 competencies that are tested over the full-day assessment centre all participants go through. A process which has been monitored and continually improved by one of the most professional graduate recruitment teams imaginable. If during assessment participants don’t meet a high score on each criteria, they can’t go on the programme. Every year of its existence (at least until 2011) TeachFirst recruited under-quota because it would rather have fewer trainees than take someone who doesn’t meet standards on the day. Why? Because doing training while also teaching a full NQT load is really very challenging, so they want people to demonstrate the abilities needed to do it well. The entry requirements are not there to say that someone with a 2:2 can’t teach or wouldn’t be an excellent teacher who is even better than a TeachFirster. But when there is so much for a trainee to do on the programme, it’s reasonable to ask for the ability to achieve well in a structured environment (as demonstrated by a 2:1) and then check this alongside all the other skills needed – resilience, leadership, etc.
3. TeachFirsters all leave after two years. On average 60% of participants stay in teaching for a third year. By 5 years that number dips to approximately 40%. Given that teachers through any route who teach in challenging schools have higher turnover rates this number is only to be expected. It’s also true that younger teachers have higher turnover rates, and TFs are predominantly (though by no means all) under 35. Given that general teacher turnover over five years is around the 50% mark you can see that 40% is really not so problematic. It’s also worth pointing out that an estimated 20% of participants also stay in education in other ways – e.g. my studying for a PhD in education, or going into HE to become teacher trainers.
4. TeachFirsters are unqualified teachers. No, TeachFirsters in their first year are trainee teachers. While unqualified in the technical sense, they are unqualified teachers on a programme to achieve QTS.  This is distinct from people teaching without qualification and not taking part in any training (so are ‘unqualified teachers’ in the classic sense).  In the second year TeachFirsters are newly qualified teachers. This confusion arises because schools, at a minimum, paid TeachFirsters at level 2 on the “unqualified teacher” pay scale in the first year.
5. TeachFirst is just a new name for FastTrack Teaching. Nope again. TeachFirst is a route for training new teachers. Fasttrack was a programme to help new teachers improve quickly and go on to become future lead practitioners. They are really quite different.
6. There’s a “secret handshake” that TeachFirsters all know. Maybe I’ll leave this unanswered just to keep a little mystery….. 😉
One final point: Hopefully this covers a lot of what people are confused about, but I can also imagine some people are now chomping at the bit. However, before you write in the comments that “I knew a TeachFirst and they were awful/boring/arrogant/brilliant/genius” do remember that this is likely true for every training route. Furthermore,TeachFirst isn’t bullet proof. An occasional participant makes it through on interview and falls apart at school for a whole heap of reasons. Whether that should be allowed to happen is one of the things we can debate but, please, let’s do it on the basis of what the programme actually is rather than on hearsay or the random TF duffer who once taught in a classroom next to you.
Okay, real final point: I’ve worked less with TF participants since 2011 so if something has changed for the latest cohort rendering something above unintelligible do let me know so I can change it.
Further Reading

The Best Blogposts about TeachFirst
How I Survived My First Year of Teaching
Brett Wigdortz’s Autobiography which explains why and how he set up the company

#Blogsync: How would I improve the status of the teaching profession?

Teachers don’t need their status raised in the eyes of the public. Telling people that you’re a teacher, especially one who works in a secondary school, generally garners immediate respect. People will tell you that you’re brave, and how they couldn’t do it, and how important the job is, and that they take their hat off to you. So for public PR we probably shouldn’t bother.
A bigger issue is that teachers often talk  down the job, especially to their own children. “Better become a shopkeer, actor…. Pondcleaner!” they say. Being a teacher is also not sexy sounding. What normal person wants to spend year after year saying the same words to different faces? Who wants to deal with the raging hormones of teenagers and the daft mistakes they consequently make? (Those remarks, ironically, are what I said when I helped TeachFirst’s first recruitment team find a university room for running recruitment sessions in 2003. I helped, of course, but I thought they were deluded).
What later changed my mind was that TeachFirst made rethink about teaching as a profession. I know this isn’t what TF is known for, and no doubt several commenters will spend time below the line focusing on all its negatives, but TF does do high quality and continuous learning  for its teacher participants very very well. So well that it made me see teaching as something to be incredibly proud of, no matter who tried to put me off doing it.  Sure, some of this in the hype  – the adverts, the schmaltzy videos, the “mission statement”. But the best thing about TeachFirst is the continual professional development you receive. These are the parts many of its critics don’t see: the school competition where participants compete for funds to run extracurricular activities, summer internships spent creating curricula for charities or working with policymakers, the chance to mentor new participants when you return to summer institute, participants being coached towards goals they set for in their second year, plus endless access to workshops, training days, and an active online community. And this isn’t just over the two years of the programme. It continues after that. By my third year of teaching I was training new participants at Summer Institute and evening workshops, and I could attend annual conferences, dinners, residentials where some of the top thinkers in education were speaking (some free, some very reasonably priced and always at times that fit around schools). These experiences meant I learned about teaching beyond my own context, and I worked with participants in many schools, all of which helped make sense of the increasing levels of responsibility I was facing.
For me, these activities helped me learn about teaching and helped me do a better job. That was why I took part. But they also meant when talking to other people about my job it sounded, frankly, cooler.  Friends in “top jobs” drew parallels with their own work and commented that teaching involved more than they expected. Teachers didn’t “just” teach, they were also involved in a “profession” that develops, and teaches each other, and influences policy. Other groups are seen this way – doctors, nurses, police commanders – and it’s quite proper that teaching be considered the same way.
Still, it has never felt right to me that teachers coming through other routes didn’t get these same opportunities. Both local authorities I worked in provided some similar opportunities  but not anything on par with TF. Academy chains and Teaching Schools might also lead such provision, but it can’t be ensured. And while TeachFirst does a lot it is only a small organisation that trains a tiny percentage of new trainees, it can’t do it all or alone. To raise the status of teaching as a profession there must be opportunities for every teacher to enact and develop their professionalism. This is why I support the revamp of the Royal College of Teaching, and why I support the idea of teacher licencing (as long as it is linked to developmental activities beyond one’s own school).
Not only would more access to continued teacher learning improve our own practice, it also enables people in other fields to see that ‘teaching’ is a complex, growing, engaging, innovative field.   Or, at least, that it involves a lot more than just saying the same words to different faces year-in and year-out.

Gove's Visits to Schools

A recent Freedom of Information request asked for the % visits Gove has done to local authority controlled schools versus academy and free schools. When the department finally answered (a long time after the first request), ,the answer was not clear.
For secondaries they said Gove had visited 22 local authority schools and 24 academies or free schools. But it was not clear if some of the local schools were in the process of converting. The requester therefore wrote back asking for details of any local authority controlled schools that had changed, and for the dates of changes compared to the visits.
The department wrote back with a list of the local authority schools and their current statuses or changes (& dates)  – hurray! Only the file was unreadable. Thankfully! @CraigArgh emailed after I cried for help on Twitter. Using his computer wizadry he managed to get some of the information (apologies for occasional odd characters). And here it is:

Official visits made to maintained secondary schools between 1 May 2010 and 31 October 2012 the Secretary of State for Education.
Lampton School21/05/2010Under Local Authority Control Academy Converter 29/6/10
Colmers School21/05/2010Expected conversion date Р1/9/13sponsored – no application date
Notre Dame High School24/06/2010Academy Converter 24/1/12
Woodside High School29/11/2010Academy Converter 30/3/11
Stanley School of Technology10/12/2010Sponsored Academy sponsored – no application date
Consett Community Sports College 10/12/2010Sponsored Academy sponsored – no application date
The Duchess’s Community High School10/12/2010Expected conversion date – 1/1/14
Twyford Church of England High School20/01/2011Academy Converter 13/6/11
Redcar Community College03/02/2011Academy Converter 12/6/12
Ian Ramsey CoE School03/02/2011No application to convert received
Altrincham Girls Grammar school11/03/2011Academy Converter 7/3/11
Goole High School01/04/2011Academy Converter 5/4/11
Ilkley Grammar School10/06/2011 Academy Converter 11/3/11
Bingley Grammar School10/06/2011No application to convert received
Redruth School17/06/2011No application to convert received
Hayle School17/06/2011No application to convert received
Methwold High School 04/11/2011Sponsored AcademySponsored – No application dat
Chantry High School 05/12/2011Sponsored Academy sponsored – no application date
Kingsford Community School09/12/2011No application to convert received
JCOSS26/01/2012No application to convert received
Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School03/02/2012No application to convert received

Six schools, in bold, appear to already have been academies when Gove visited. The three in italics converted shortly after.  If so, this would mean Gove has visited 30 free schools and academies, 13 local authority schools, and 3 converting schools.
It could be that the code has corrupted the data, so if anyone has information to the contrary I am very happy to hear it. Otherwise I hope this helps the FOI requester (and thanks again to @CraigArgh).
Postscript: The wonderful @FOImonkey worked out that the problem was caused by a docx being misread as a zip file. They sorted out the issue and embedded in Scribd. See below. It’s days like these the internet manages to restore faith in humanity.

Official Visits 1 May 2010 to 31 Oct 2012 Secretary of State for Education Secondary Maintained by foi_monkey

The Black Sheep of Ofsted Hope

Having listened to @oldandrewuk‘s extensive evidence about Ofsted I am happy to accept that   Ofsted has a problem with teacher talk. However, I also have a story that has always heartened me in the face of people arguing that Ofsted don’t know good teacher-led learning when they see it.
During a recent inspection (last 2 years) an Assistant Head walked into the office ashen-faced. He looked like he’d seen a ghost.  “Darla spoke for the whole thing,” he said. “The whole 20 minutes we were in there she..just…spoke! She was showing the students powerpoint slides, and then getting them to draw, then getting them to watch, then draw.”
Darla is an art teacher known for doing what she wants but always putting the students first. Nevertheless, we panicked. Though we knew, regardless of all her teacher talk, that the students would be learning a tonne – they always did – would the Inspector agree?
Darla got a clear Grade 1 “Outstanding” for the lesson. The feedback mentioned that every student was engaged, learning, developing. She was commended on her ability to use her voice, language and presence to command the whole-class. And though subtle, she had left planned prompts on students’ desk so no-one was “left behind”.
Ofsted inspectors will sometimes get things wrong. They might have pet hates, or wish to see more activities not coming directly from the centre. But my fears have been at least a little quelled that if they see really good teacher-led learning, then they won’t automatically dismiss it. After all, the same person who inspected our school must go to others too. A black sheep in the crowd? Possibly. But at least we know they exist.

"You get what you Gove"

New teachers quickly learn that demanding behaviour from students that you’re not willing to demonstrate yourself is entirely pointless.  Calmness, courage, patience, thoughtfulness – you want them? Model them. Over, and over, and over.*
Gove is often a pro at behaving courteously. He compliments question askers in Parliament, charms speech audiences with anecdotes, knows his brief in Committee sessions. But when it comes to hiding what comes across as a deep dislike of most teachers, he struggles. Reminiscent of a teacher who speaks sweetly to the top set but turns nasty when facing slow, lumbering set six, it sometimes comes across as if he believes that lowering himself to the level of understanding an ordinary teacher somehow means they’ll infect him.
Such irrational arrogances stop otherwise outstanding teachers from being any use at all with lower sets. And, if not careful, acting in this way will stop Gove making lasting changes – even ones that are important and useful.
Last November Nansi Ellis wrote an excellent piece pointing out the problem of Gove asking for teachers to behave in certain ways:

Gove’s call for openness is all one way: teachers must be open to the government’s ideas. A government that really believed in openness wouldn’t start a consultation on the biggest exam shake up for decades by asking whether it’s given the new exam the right name.

One can highlight countless other areas where openness hasn’t happened – the EBacc, disapplication of the curriculum, academy takeovers, the push to SchoolsDirect over PGCEs, AS Level reforms.
It is of course unreasonable to expect any Secretary of State to beat his drum solely to the rhythm of professionals. He works for the public, not the profession. But Ellis suggests a middle way:

True openness requires the humility to realise that you might be wrong, an ability to listen to people with different ideas, and an acceptance that people with different views might also want what’s best for children and young people.

The U-turn on GCSE reforms was one example of this. But it’s not enough. If Gove, like any educator,  wants calmness, courage, patience and thoughtfulness, then he – like the rest of us – needs to model it over, and over, and over again, until he gets the behaviour he wants and need.


NB: I don’t think you just need to be calm, patient and thoughtful to get students to behave. Would it were that easy! You also need things like clearly and firmly enforced rules (see here or here for more on that). But as a teacher you need to be clear and firm, while also modelling the behaviours you want. As annoying and difficult as that is, it really is the only way.

The @redorgreenpen Problem

If you haven’t been reading @redorgreenpen‘s penetrating “7 kids in 7 days” blog, then you’ve missed out. By describing in searching detail the behaviours of seven students, anonymous blogger redorgreenpen gives the most authentic descriptions of challenging students’ lives I have read in some time. Possibly ever.

The story of Arianne on the sixth day made me particularly nervous. With a penchant for incredibly aggressive behaviour, redorgreenpen laments Arianne being label as having ‘Behavioural, Social and Emotional’ difficulties (aka, BESD). Too often the BESD status becomes an excuse for not requiring her to behave better in classes, but this just makes things worse:

I believe that the vast, vast majority of the population is capable of exercising control over their behaviour. But if that basic standard really is not possible for Arianne, by god, she should have gone to specialist provision years ago. If we’re going to decide a child is incapable of taking responsibility for their own actions and behaving properly, someone else needs to step in and take that responsibility for them. That takes money, resources and time. There’s no denying that. But at the moment these uncontrollable children are operating in a responsibility vacuum, insulated by layers of obfuscation and excuses

Arianne does need help, and schools can very rarely access it. Having worked closely with BESD departments I know how the sort of complex inter-service help Arianne needs is often only available once a student has officially been tagged as ‘BESD’. And even then it is slow going. There is often no end to the difficulties of convening professionals, getting parents onside, legal implications, court appearances, continually writing and writing referral documents that get ignored, or lost, or need restarting. Then, on top of that, the complexities of the child’s mental state – the extent of runaway, drug, self-harm, sexual, suicidal behaviours – all of which needed to be factored into decisions taken by the school can make exclusions or managed moves an achingly long process. All the while teachers are being told “stick with her”.

But then came the seventh day – Fawsia. Another traumatised student, this time with an equally difficult backstory yet unwilling to misbehave. Her lack of aggression means her needs are constantly overlooked. Redorgreenpen explains:

The allocation of resources to students in schools is basically based on how loud you shout, how badly behaved you are, how many problems you cause. I’m sure Fawsia could do with some counselling: she’d probably actually turn up to the sessions unlike a lot of the kids who do get that privilege. But Fawsia stays in the background, hidden.

And then comes the nub:

Every time someone advocates including all the Ariannes in your classroom, think of Fawsia, sitting in the corner, having another hour of her education wasted.

The @redorgreenpen Problem

On what grounds do we value one student’s outcomes over another?  

When you only have one teacher in a class whose job it is to deal with the Ariannes and Fawsias (as well as twenty-eight other students) how do you do it? In this case it’s about behaviour – should Arianne’s aggressive behaviour suck in more resource than Fawsia’s desperate silence? Or, in the case of intelligence, should a precociously smart Tyrone ever be in the same class as a plodding Caitlin?

The most obvious answer is that we don’t pick one over the other. We give schools more resources. Proper mental health professionals working full-time inside schools. Proper referral systems where Arianne and Fawsia both get the support they need, without endless rationing which means only the loudest and most extreme cases get it. Proper learning diagnostics, proper follow-up, proper evaluation. But proper resources are ever-unlikely.

And so it is that most day teachers simply must answer the ‘redorgreenpen problem’ over and over again. On what grounds do we value one student’s outcomes over another? How do we pick who to prioritise?

This Is Water

I recently wrote a piece called “Why I Learn” to inspire pupils at Greenwich Free School. You can find out what they thought of the piece here.
Partly the piece was inspired by a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace. Last week I discovered this excerpt of him reading the speech set to music and visuals. It’s beautiful. Definitely one to share widely.

Amazing New Books: May

Once a month I get a series of “new book” lists from Publishers. I usually write out a little list of what I want and then I store them up until I have some free time (and/or until the library can get them for me – new books are expensive). Here’s my list for May.
Psychocinematics – Arthur P Shimumura – I’ve written two dissertations in my studies. One was about films, the other about psychology. If Shimumura had gotten this book done a decade earlier I might have written just one dissertation instead. Psychocinematics considers the brain-work involved in film watching and film making. It sounds amazing. A blog about it here makes me want to devour this book immediately. Unfortunately, it’s very expensive.
Improbable Scholars – David Kirp – Union City is one of the poorest areas in New Jersey yet it has been on a ‘turnaround journey’ in the last few years. This book describes new schools, schools that changed their ways, stories of educational administration improvement. But I’m also wary, quite a few bloggers – particularly SchoolFinance101 – have argued NJ is more contrervsial and things haven’t really got better.  BUT – I like considering evidence equally from all sides, and this looks a good way to do that. Also it’s described as a “playbook – not a prayer book – for education reform”. With marketing like that, how can it fail to be great?
Inside the Black Box of Classroom Reform – Larry Cuban – For an English audience this is an unfortunate title. Teachers in England know of “the Black Box” as referring to Williams & Black’s booklet about Assessment for Learning.  Cuban uses the phrase to explain why there have been many many many educatonal reforms yet classrooms have stayed fairly similar (as has inequality, poor standards, etc). Politicians tinker but teachers carry on doing what they do anyway. Cuban explores why, and suggests ways to change. Am intrigued. Want.
The British Constitution (A Very Short Introduction) – I’ve never got over my first Oxford essay. I was given three days to write 2000 words on something about Blair and  the British constitution. It took me two and a half days to figure out we didn’t have a constitution  Or did we? This book would have been a life saver. (Also, yes, the essay was unspeakably awful. I’d have been better served by writing “I don’t know” in capital letters and handing that in).

What do we mean by 'relevance'?

Also cross-posted at LKMCo
Relevance has become a bit of a ‘sneer’ term of late. But what do people mean by it? There seem to be two meanings. One, is when you teach a whole topic simply because you think students will enjoy it or it fits their current preoccupations. That is not relevance. That is ‘entertainment’. If students are merely repeating information they already have, or are  clearly not pushing/revising the boundaries of their skills, knowledge or comfort – then you’re right to call it out.
But the second way of sneering about ‘relevance’ is when people say it is ridiculous to make a difficult concept more relevant by starting from ideas that a student already know as a ‘way in’ or linking learning beyond the classroom.   That seems ludicrous.  A story from my hero, Seymour Sarason, explains why this sort of ‘relevance’ is vital:
“Let me tell you about me and my first course in algebra. I was a good student and not only in algebra. Algebra came easily to me. It was also very uninterestingand downright boring. I never understood and no one ever bothered to explain why we had to learn algebra. Well, one day I screwed up enough courage to ask our teacher why we had to learn algebra. When I asked that question, the rest of the class broke out in applause. The teacher became visibly upset. He quieted us down and said that he wanted to finish the lessons of the day that tomorrow he would try to and answer the question. The next day he started the class by saying; “I’m going to present you with two choices, and you have to decide which of the two you will choose. Keep your choice to yourself. The first is that on the first day of next month I will give each of you $1 million. The second is that on the first day of next month I will give each of you a penny, on the second day I will double it, that will get doubled on the third day, and a doubling will go on each subsequent day of the month. Think about it for a few moments and make your choice.” Everyone opted for the million dollars and, of course, we were shortchanging ourselves. He then went on to demonstrate the law of compound interest and the formula for it. To say that we were astounded is to put it mildly. All of us were interested in money, and I can honestly say that was a peak day in my school years. What I thought I knew was wrong. What I needed to know I now wanted to know, and the more the better. I shall ever be grateful to that teacher at how he made formula important and interesting on that day.
He was a superb teacher and that is where I plan on starting: getting more teachers like the one I had in algebra.
This sort of  relevance is really really important. Relevance sparks interest. A great teacher can make anything relevant. I would argue teachers need to make it relevant if every single kid in a class is going to learn (it’s a modern miracle to find 30 constantly internally motivated teenagers). But relevance is not synonymous with ‘making it easy’ – which is how it seems to be being used all of a sudden. Maybe that’s because some people shirking the difficulties of teaching like to use relevance as an excuse (“it’s not relevant to these kids”).  But we can’t let the inaccurate use of a word by a few people become a global thing by mimicking them. All knowledge can be considered relevant to everyone, a teacher’s jobs is finding the key to helping the student realise that too.

Greatness: A List of Education Secretaries

Over the summer my main research project is on the biographies of education secretaries. I’m planning to apply the framework from Dean Simonton’s Greatness: Who Makes History and Whyto see if the best remembered among the group conform to his theories. For reference, here is a list of my summer companions

May 45 Feb 47 Ellen Wilkinson Labour
Feb 47 Nov 51 George Tomlinson Labour
Nov 51 Oct 54 Florence Horsburgh Labour
Oct 54 Jan 57 David Eccles Conservative
Jan 57 Sep 57 Viscount Hailsham Conservative
Sep 57 Oct 59 Geoffrey Lloyd Conservative
Oct 59 July 62 David Eccles Conservative
July 62 Mar 64 Edward Boyle Conservative
Apr 64 Oct 64 Quintin Hogg Conservative
Oct 64 Jan 65 Michael Stewart Labour
Jan 65 Aug 67 Anthony Crosland Labour
Aug 67 Apr 68 Patrick Walker Labour
Apr 68 Jun 70 Edward Short Labour
Jun 70  Mar 74 Margaret Thatcher Conservative
Mar 74 Jun 75 Reginald Prentice Labour
Jun 75 Sep 76 Fred Mulley Labour
Sep 76 May 79 Shirley Williams Labour
May 79 Sep 81 Mark Carlisle Conservative
Sep 81 May 86 Keith Joseph Conservative
May 86 Jul 89 Ken Baker Conservative
Jul 89 Nov 90 John McGregor Conservative
Nov 90 Apr 92 Ken Clarke Conservative
Apr 92 Jul 94 John Patten Conservative
July 94 May 97 Gillian Shephard Conservative
May 97 Jun 01 David Blunkett Labour
Jun 01 Oct 02 Estelle Morris Labour
Oct 02 Dec 04 Charles Clarke Labour
Dec 04 May 06 Ruth Kelly Labour
May 06 Jun 07 Alan Johnson Labour
Jun 07 May 10 Ed Balls Labour
May 10 Michael Gove Conservative