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.

I wrote a book! With Drew Povey (from Educating Manchester)! It’s called The Leadership Factor, and it’s short, and cheesy, but funny. Get it here.

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

27 thoughts on “Top 5 Myths About TeachFirst

  1. Reblogged this on Forgot my pen Miss. and commented:
    It’s nice to see some of the Teach First myths dispelled in this post. Teach First is often a name that comes up in heated conversations and while this post doesn’t end the debate, it does clear up some of the confusion!

  2. Surely the most important thing is to offer training to committed professionals who want QTS, No one can achieve this without committing hours into learning from and then providing evidence for the minimum standards. Whether you go through BEd, SCITT, PGCE, GTP or Teach first you can only achieve the right to teach by demonstrating you can do it.

  3. This is a useful clarification. It’s interesting that the TF-blogger crew seem to be writing some excellent blogs and, no doubt, represent a good injection of quality personnel into the profession who might not otherwise join. I know a Head colleague who finds TF a great source of quality but only in a stop-gap sense; I know another teacher who left TF because he did find it a bit cultish…too much ‘saviour syndrome’. Personally I was entirely neutral until I saw this: which wound me up a good deal. The £3 per lesson to alleviate poverty is too much; there is no evidence that TF does anything to tackle poverty any more than all the other non-TF teachers; I think it is insulting to mainstream teachers working in the same environment. Plus this strategy is taken directly from Oxfam and Save the Children; I just think it is inappropriate on many levels. I guess this kind of thing clouds the positive work that TF does… which is a great shame. I would suggest a mandatory five-year commitment would address a lot people’s concerns. Even three. To be honest, the fact that people like you came through TF is a massive plus…will you go back to teaching as Dr McInerney?

    1. As a TF Ambassador I can say that the current fundraising campaign does rankle with a lot of people. Also when TeachFirst was set up in London the average period of time a teacher stayed in post was about 20 months, which is where the 2 years initially came from (and it copies the Teach for America model) and initially TF was never designed to be at the scale it is now.

      The 5 year idea is an interesting one – research suggests it takes 3 years to get close to being a ‘great’ teacher so another year would certainly be a good thing. 5 years is a big commitment for young grads though, not sure it would have the same allure and, as Laura says, ~60% stay beyond the 2 years, many of whom would not have entered teaching otherwise – TF is about capturing the talent that might not have otherwise taught and funnelling it into the most challenging schools (at a conceptual level at least) not providing a scale solution to our shortage of good quality teachers across the entire system.

      In short TF gets a lot of potential talent into some of the schools that need it most – The kids then get to work on the teachers and, as we all know kids change us, so many end up staying longer. TF is not a paneacea it does its bit to raise the profile of teaching and emphasise the importance of on-going CPD (as Laura also points out in another article). Finally, a lot of TF people leave the classroom but return in later years – however TF does not track this as far as I know so hard to speak of these volumes/impact.

      1. For people early in their careers – building relationships, starting families, figuring out their place (geographically, vocationally, etc) – I think five years is simply too much. It’s also true that teachfirsters don’t get a choice in the school where they are placed. This can mean participants end up half a country away from loved ones – to ask them to stay even for three years might be slightly too much, even while I empathise with the idea. Certainly I look at the difference in the teacher I was in Year 2, 4 and 6 and am grateful for what I learned when I stayed.

        The advertisement campaign was a false step. I found it insulting as a taxpayer to be made to feel like the way we are funding education was not adequate enough. There *are* reasons why TF needs extra money, it funds great schemes, such as higher education mentoring for students in the challenging schools where participants work, but the messaging was entirely off.

        Me and teaching? I can’t imagine a week which doesn’t involve at least some teaching, but whether that will be in a classroom in a school, a university, or somewhere else I don’t know yet. I’m one of those people I described above with a life that is developing rather than already settled, and which can’t be planned solely around my needs when I have an ambitious partner and an ageing family to consider. Certainly I have no fears about going back into the classroom, though I wouldn’t want to be called Doctor!, and can see me actively seeking opportunities to be there in some capacity in the future.

        1. It is heartening to know that neither you or Mark are fans of the advertising campaign. Why don’t they just take it down? I can imagine a much better campaign that just says, ‘TF is making a difference but we need your help’..without the £3 per lesson stuff and overt associations with tackling poverty. I agree that 3-5 years is wishful thinking. Teacher contracts allow relatively short notice periods anyway so it wouldn’t be enforceable. I suppose people will stick with it if they enjoy the job enough and see a rewarding career path ahead. I’d hope that would be incentive enough.

          1. Hi Tom. Similar issues here with the campaign, alas. I know that participant concerns have been expressed internally via a participant representative body that we have, which usually serves to feedback participant thoughts or concerns to TF or the HEIs. What discussion is taking place internally regarding the campaign, we are not in a position to know.

            I have to say that I think the 3-5 year commitment would be a huge mistake. One clarification that Laura missed out, is that not only are 100% of participants placed in schools in challenging circumstances, but TF deliberately set out from the start to attract people into teaching who otherwise would never have considered it. While there are those who join TF who always wanted to be a teacher, there are a great many who never considered it before Teach First came along. I count myself amongst them, and I know many participants who feel the same way, but who are now staying on in teaching. In my case, I did not want to be a teacher – I wanted to work to improve our education system. I’ve recently seen Teach Firsters accused, unprovoked, of arrogance by other teachers on twitter. Yet, how much more arrogant would it be for me to think I could do anything to improve education in the UK if I’d never worked a day within the system! Isn’t that one of the things people like to accuse Gove of? I would have thought that admitting I need to first understand the system we have, and the people who work in it, would demonstrate humility, not hubris. As for my presumption that I could do anything to positively contribute to our education system, I guess I’m just going to have to rely on people’s good graces not to hold that against me!

            I’ve heard a criticism that TF is made up of ‘graduates who aren’t sure what they want to do,’ and this is bad since we should only be trying to attract people ready to make a lifelong commitment to teaching. That’s one hell of an ask, though! Many people who are now committed to teaching, or education, wouldn’t have joined the profession if they thought they had to sign up for life from day 1. TF allows an effective ‘out.’ They ask for a 2 year commitment, which isn’t too much to ask, but in case you want to leave teaching, for whatever reason, the brand name, corporate connections and leadership development mean you can feel comfortable that you’ll be able to change careers if you so chose. If one signs up to a PGCE route, I think there is that feeling that you’re signing up for life, and if after a couple of years you found you weren’t cut out to be a teacher, for my part I’d feel less secure that I could easily sell my experience to an alternative profession. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it’s the impression I have, it’s the impression other people will have, and therefore it will influence whether or not people choose to go into teaching. Proving the ‘out,’ rather than backing people into a corner, makes it much easier to persuade people to sign up. What of course you don’t see, since it’s not part of the marketing and recruitment, is once on the programme everything that TF does to promote a a ‘lifelong commitment’ to education.

            Another issue is the idea that people *must* stay in teaching at all costs. What I like about TF is that it’s mission driven – it’s not so much about becoming a teacher, as it is about tackling a social issue. I think some people find that a bit self-righteous perhaps, but it shouldn’t be any more than any charity set up to try to address a social cause! While some people choose to feel insulted, as if TF is presuming that no other teacher is tackling educational disadvantage, what they miss is that while this is an issue that could be tackled by working as a teacher, it could be tackled in many other ways as well. It could be running a school, working for the DfE, moving into educational consultancy, establishing a social enterprise, or even leaving education altogether, but maintaining links to the world whatever your new career, by working as a governor for example, or by trying to influence your new corporate employer to dedicate resources to help schools in their nearby community. Ironically, the same abusive tweachers I mentioned above, while accusing TF of elitism, also go on to sneer at any chosen career other than teaching. Two people got together to list the things that they expected me to do after I had ‘taught first.’ Each tweet began ‘Teach First then…’ Investment banking of course came top of the list. What I found strange though was that ‘educonsultancy’ was in there as well, as though no-one in education is worth anything, unless they’re a teacher. For my part, I think we need people sympathetic to the cause working in all kinds of positions, within and without education, and that TF is slowly building that movement of people I think is a great thing.

            People who go into teaching via a PGCE and then leave teaching, leave education. They’re often simply gone – I am making an assumption here, I admit, and if I’m wrong about that please do correct me. People who go in through TF, in theory, are more likely to stay connected to education in some way, even if they leave teaching. Surely that’s a good thing?

            Anyway, the problem with the 3-5 year commitment is that, simply put, it will scare off people who are interested in education, but not yet ready to commit to life as a teacher. I would have been one of them. 2 years I was prepared to give to teaching, and I then fully expected to leave and go into management consulting for a time. I never intended to leave education altogether, and long term I then always planned to leave consulting after a few years and look at how I could fulfil some other role in the education sphere. I wanted the consulting experience partly because I do love the work day to day, but also because I think it would train me to think and gift me myriad skills that could be applied to the education world. As it happens, I’m continuing as a teacher for the foreseeable future, though I probably never would have started if I had to commit to three years.

            I’m not sure if I’ve really been as clear here as I could, despite the word count! I think it’s a very difficult thing to communicate to people who are ‘traditionally minded,’ and who entered teaching through traditional routes, where the benefits are of this bizarre new programme that seems to be saying ‘become a teacher for only two years!’ Hopefully I’ve at least achieved some of the explanation. If anything’s still left unclear, please let me know and I’ll try to clarify.

          2. Kris – thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, particularly about the reasons why you decided to do TeachFirst. There are many reasons why people get involved and hearing more stories about why people do it (beyond: I want to work for an investment bank) is really important.

            On the PGCE thing, I’m not convinced you are any more stuck if going through that route. The number of people who leave PGCEs or who don’t go on to complete NQTs is surprisingly high, and the number of people who leave teaching regardless of route is also high. This is likely a function of many things about the job. But you’re right to point out that by keeping things looking as if they are open TF is more appealing to a broader range of people even though once you are on the programme there is a real emphasis on becoming a great teacher, and a lot of support (and respect, actually) for people who stay in teaching long-term.

            Personally, the charity/mission thing is a bit irksome for me. I’m not a huge fan of charity as a model for delivering public services in total (i.e. schools run by ‘charities’). That said, when you look at the history of TeachFirst I think the programme has benefited enormously from being independent to government. It makes it somewhat less likely to be tossed out when a new government enters the fray. The ability to stay consistent over time, with reasonably little interference, is one of the reasons why the organisation has been successful and being able to do that was dependent on its charity classification. But there’s a difference between operating charitably and making education seem like a “charity case”. I think one of the reasons why participants were concerned by the ad campaign was because it seemed like the latter and not the former.

            You’re also right about the fact that people working in education get criticised for not teaching and it’s better for people to have taught, before working in other fields, than to never have done it before. There is a danger, though, that after two years people might go into the world thinking they know lots more about teaching than they actually do. Having worked in two schools in a variety of roles – pastoral and leadership – I look at the difference between what I knew at six and two years and see a huge difference. That I see such a differences makes me aware that there must also be a huge difference between 2, 6, 10 and 20 years. That’s not to say that unless you spend a lifetime in a classroom you can’t speak out or improve education in other ways. But all of us need to be aware of our limits in experience and make sure we listen to, consider, include the voices of people right across the sector. And I extend that to teachers who have never done any other job too; it’s not okay to play a “i’ve done this all my life” superiority card. Because while it’s brilliant to be a lifelong teacher, I also think there’s benefit in having done another. Working in the private sector before I taught means I can bring in ideas from another area, and that integration was one of the things I enjoyed about working with colleagues who had come into teaching via business, the arts, social work etc. Many professions have people circling in and out – medicine has people doing research, diagnostics, surgery, health prevention, etc – there’s no reason why we can’t see education in this sort of way and be grateful for having a blend of people involved.

          3. “Many professions have people circling in and out – medicine has people doing research, diagnostics, surgery, health prevention, etc – there’s no reason why we can’t see education in this sort of way and be grateful for having a blend of people involved.”

            Very well put!

  4. It’s a bit odd to write a piece debunking myths yet providing no hard evidence to support the counter-claims, particularly as regards teacher retention rates.

    1. Not sure what ‘hard’ evidence could be provided for most of these? On retention, the 60% figure is from the recent TF evidence given to the government. The 40% figure is from the Bucks study, though it isn’t clear if it is 5 years *after* the 2 year programme (so actually 7 years) or from the outset. For more on the impact of being young and in a disadvantaged school on turnover see here, it’s fairly comprehensive:

  5. One of the weirdest arguments against TF is the ‘they go on to do something else afterwards’ one. So what??

    It’s very unusual in the 21st Century for people to have a profession for life – and that’s no bad thing. Many people are teaching assistants before they become teachers, yet are not criticised for ‘using’ that role to ‘climb the greasy pole’ – yet for some reason people who are briefly teachers are criticised.

    With the primary programme there is a valid concern surrounding the idea of people being given a class for 70%-80% of the time with very little training, working effectively alone from the outset. This is quite a risk to take with children’s education (although it seems likely they would catch up with NQT colleagues by the summer term).

    However, it needs to be remembered that the kind of schools who go to TF looking for recruits do so in many cases precisely because they cannot recruit from elsewhere – due to reputation or other reasons. So if you’re an experienced teacher and worried about this, get out of your comfort zone and go and work in a challenging school with a bad Ofsted report!

  6. I have worked with three teach firsters in my department and another to come in September. They have all been excellent hardworking and committed. However one decided that teaching was not for them and left half way through the second year another is leaving to work abroad. I dont begrudge them this its no different from most young teachers from what ever route. Occasionally though I do get annoyed with the idea that teach first is a programme that provides ‘better’ teachers. I have seen no evidence for this I have seen excellent teachers from all routes, they do however as you say in your blog have characteristics that enable them to cope well with the ups and downs. I actually think its teach first selection process that selects more suitable people rather than any aspect of the training that is special. I do believe it encourages people to give the profession a go who otherwise might not have done so particularly as they get a wage straight away which must be a financial safety net.
    We tend to take the p**s out of them ( in a nice way) over being the saviours of education.
    I heard you had a song not a handshake!

  7. Talking of myths:

    “That I see such a differences makes me aware that there must also be a huge difference between 2, 6, 10 and 20 years.”

    Not at all. By the time you get to 10 and 20 years you are simply repeating the things you were told not to be doing at 6 and 10 years. Educationalists keep reinventing the wheel but hiding the fact by dreaming up fancy names for it.

    Not using your title? Why on Earth not? You have worked for it and it gives your students something to aspire to !

  8. I agree that the ongoing support and training offered through TF can be good, but my issue with your first point is that TF-ers DO start after 6 weeks training with a (nearly) full teaching load.They are a timetabled employee of the school come August/ September and have most of the responsibilities of the other fully qualified members of staff. Yes training is ongoing, but the entry point at which you assume full responsibility for students comes on day 1. After 6 weeks of training, a decent portion of which is spent observing.

    1. That TeachFirsters take full responsibility for their classes has never seemed a bad thing to me. That the TF knows from the outset that they are there for two years, that they will need to get students onside and learning, that they can’t just walk away from mistakes at the end of a few months and write it off, always seemed an advantage. It won’t work all across the system. Some people want a variety of experiences to build up confidence before they take such responsibility. But given TFs fairly rigorous intake process that some people are able to take this challenge earlier seems likely and positive (and that intake process is not just the heavy screening & assessment at recruitment, but also the follow-up scrutiny during the summer and subsequent training).

      Matt Hood has also done a good job of explaining how the risk of this level of responsibility is thoroughly managed by the TF team:

      1. Hi Laura,
        Thanks for replying. My comment only disputed your assertion around the 6 week training not being correct. It is, TF start with a (nearly) full load on day 1 following 6 weeks of training. In most other training routes the classes are the responsibility of the qualified teacher in post.
        I have worked with Matt before on the Heads steering group in the NE. In my own school, We unfortunately (and very reluctantly) had to ‘fail’ one TF and manage the fallout following another’s withdrawal after year 1 (with their free PGCE and subsequent movement to a school in leafy suburb); To be fair to Matt he was as mortified as we were!

  9. Oh, another one relayed to me today: “You have to go to an elite university to teach on TeachFirst” < Not at all true. Even in my own cohort when there were only about 200 participants, there were more than 20 universities represented. The entry requirements are around a-level grades and degree classification, plus the extensive assessment centre, NOT which university you went to. The reason why certain universities were over-represented, particularly in the early cohorts, is that TF back then was a very small independent charity with an extremely limited recruitment budget and so focused on just a few universities where, traditionally, people had very high entry qualifications but did not go into teaching. Honestly, I think that was a smart move.

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