Teach First Isn’t Very Good, And Neither Is Rampant Neoliberalism

The 'Tough Young Teachers', posing ridiculously
The ‘Tough Young Teachers’, posing ridiculously

The Bemolution has largely given up watching TV because most of it’s rubbish, but we’re informed by persevering telly-watchers that there’s a programme on about Teach First.

Teach First is a government initiative designed to encourage ‘high-flying’ university leavers to have a go at teaching before they join one of the more conventional graduate employers. Its stated aims are reasonably well-meaning. ‘Top’ graduates rarely go into education, the logic runs. They’ll go to into banking, PR, marketing and the like, but for some reason consistently dodge anything socially useful. If that excellence could be harnessed and directed at educating some of the most disadvantaged people in the country, perhaps it could strike a resounding blow against social inequality.

Successful applicants are put through six weeks training then sent off to work in a school for two years – almost always one in a heavily deprived part of the country. They get a nominated mentor, a fellow teacher at the school, and various other forms of support from Teach First itself, but in the classroom they’re very much on their own. And it’s here, apparently, that the BBC’s Tough Young Teachers looms in to follow the progress of six new Teach Firsters.

Someone who’s watched it told us that the featured newbies were posh and useless. That’s probably unfair, and/or a massive over-generalisation. And if it isn’t, you can hardly blame rich, socially segregated graduates who aren’t much more than kids themselves for being bad teachers when they’re parachuted into the toughest schools in the country after a month or so of PowerPoint presentations.

Either way, Teach First, in our view, is largely awful. Not just because it throws people with no experience of teaching and next to no training into the neediest classrooms in the country. It’s also awful because the ideology underpinning it is awful – and because despite professing the loftiest of social ambitions, it’s as much a corporate recruitment exercise as it is a concerted attempt to deal with wrenching inequality.

Teach First was born out of a ground-breaking study into secondary education carried out by corporate consultancy giant McKinsey in 2001. Its stunning, knock-me-down-with-a-feather conclusion was that students taught by good teachers do better than those who don’t have good teachers. Apparently, one McKinsey employee was so bowled over by this discovery that he made it his mission to try and increase the numbers of good teachers in the system. After six months of planning, he’d drawn up a business plan for Teach First – and by July 2002, Mr Brett Wigdortz was CEO of the newly-christened education charity.

New Labour loved the idea. It clicked perfectly with the Blairite conviction that progressive ends could – and, in practically all cases, should – be achieved using the methods and values of the private sector. The government agreed to part-fund the programme, and it was given a swanky founding promotional event at London’s Canary Wharf.

If tackling socio-economic inequality is your organisation’s stated aim, you could probably pick a better venue for your launch party than a place that’s passionately advocated socio-economic inequality for thirty years – and used its clout to crush any serious attempt at righting it.

But the rationale behind the decision was obvious – the Wharf was chosen because it happened to be where most of Teach First’s biggest supporters were based. Go on the website, have a look at the charity’s list of ‘Platinum Partners’, and you’ll see it’s been backed from the start by Citigroup, RBS, Credit Suisse, HSBC, Deloitte, Proctor & Gamble, PricewaterhouseCoopers and others.

Why were the world’s biggest investment banks and professional services firms – who could hardly have done more to prove themselves diametrically opposed to equality over the past few decades – suddenly interested in teaching, of all things? Aside from the PR value of being seen to support something mildly progressive-sounding, the answer was recruitment. Teach First, it turned out, was only really half about teaching.

Google it, and the one-line blurb you get from our very own Department for Education runs thus: ‘Teach First transforms outstanding graduates into inspiring leaders, ready to excel in any management career’. Given one sentence to encapsulate the essence of the scheme, the arm of government in charge of schooling tellingly neglected to mention teaching, or education, or pupils, or that much banged-on-about social justice crusade at all. The one word it did deem important enough to mention – ‘management’.

The ‘elite’ graduates Teach First recruits literally ‘teach first’. In six weeks, they’re taught to be ‘inspiring leaders’ – which apparently means the same thing whether you’re educating the next generation or doing accounts for oil firms – then go out and teach for two years or so. But they’re not expected to stay on for much longer than that. In fact, they’re actively encouraged to scrap teaching after a few years, skip into the City and make a mint working for one of the aforementioned Platinum Partners.

No, you’re not guaranteed a job in the end, and yes, some Teach Firsters are incredibly dedicated to their students, staying on as teachers long-term or moving into other areas of education. But the whole process seems to be geared around preparing applicants for high-flying corporate life – to ascend to their rightful place at the pinnacle of society having generously donated a few years of their life to uplift the poor.

When they’re supposedly solely focused on teaching the disadvantaged, reminders of the big corporate happy ending that could await them are never far away – in the school holidays, for instance, they’re offered internships with the Platinum Partners, a kind of initiation into the world they’ll probably jump into once they’ve had enough of education.

Kids, especially the poorest, neediest kids, deserve teachers who are fully committed to their education, and fully prepared to teach them. Six weeks training is nowhere near sufficient for someone charged with overseeing the most crucial period of young people’s lives, even if it’s supplemented with plenty of on-the-job learning.

Because they’re usually competent people, most Teach Firsters find that they can fulfil the minimum requirements of the job to a reasonable standard after a wobbly first few months – while obviously lacking the classroom experience and the knowledge of how people learn that would turn a passable teacher into an excellent one, and that the comprehensive year-long PGCEs most trainees take are far more likely to produce.

But the brevity of the spell most Teach Firsters spend in education automatically limits how good they’re ever going to get at the job. They’re five times more likely to leave teaching within the first five years than students who take the more traditional PGCE course. And excellent teachers aren’t made overnight. Talk to an experienced educator and they’re likely to say the ability to teach well is something that develops gradually over years – and that at the end of your third, fourth, even fifth year on the job, you’re still only at the start of long, fairly arduous but incredibly worthwhile development process.

The unpreparedness of the students, the short-termism of their commitment (among many, but not all) – that’s bad enough. But critically examine the kind of rhetoric spouted by Mr Wigdortz and his disciples and the scheme goes from a looking a bit dodgy to downright deluded.

Really, Teach First is just another manifestation of the management evangelism that’s swept into practically every area of society over the past thirty years – the grim idea that corporate methods and values aren’t just universally applicable, they’re the only viable way of doing things in the modern world. Managerialism has taken the public sector by force. Public services have to be run like businesses, say the managers. NHS staff have to call patients ‘customers’. If there’s a problem in your organisation, or even in society, the problem isn’t down to lack of funding, or lack of staff morale, or the distribution of power and resources. It’s because people aren’t being managed properly. Funnily enough, it’s always the caring, altruistic vocations that have to become more like management, never the other way around.

Teach First is that attitude applied to education. It’s a classically neoliberal answer to disadvantage. Never mind crushing structural inequality, the criminal neglect of the most deprived and an economic system ran by and for the richest 10%. What poor people need is ‘inspiration’. As for the sub-par teachers the poor saps are lumbered with at the moment, well, they’re just not motivational enough. It’s not that they’re horribly overworked, shamefully underappreciated and given ever-dwindling resources to try and teach kids who’ve got no interest in being in the classroom (because they’re not stupid, and they’ve seen how far education got people a few years older than themselves). They’re just not up to standard. What those poor semi-feral urban kids really need is a few nice private school products parachuted into their lives to bowl them over with sheer charisma.

It’s the same sort of thinking that attributes the problems of some inner-city black communities to a lack of positive male role models. Maybe gangs, guns, drugs and crime would be easier to resist for kids with stable father figures. But even if you flooded the estates with conscientious surrogate dads, young people would still be left desperately hunting for work in an economy that doesn’t provide them with any, finding somewhere to live in cities where the only dwellings going up are a bit pricey for people on six figure salaries, and feeling abandoned at the bottom of the pile in a society where ‘being someone’ seems to mean ‘having lots of stuff’.

Elite?

If you’ve only got six weeks to learn how to be teacher, you’d naturally imagine that your tutors are going to spend as much time as possible talking about education. But they don’t. We know people who’ve gone through the system. They talk to the Teach Firsters about management, how to ‘inspire’. That, it’s assumed, is all you need to be good at teaching. Subject knowledge, educational theory, that’s all overrated. The hoi polloi might need to spend a year learning about it, but elite graduates can just pick that up on the fly.

The more you poke at it, the more the Teach First logic falls apart. Who are ‘elite’ graduates anyway? What makes them ‘top’? Simply having gone to ‘top’ universities seems to be the puddle-shallow answer. But in of itself, why does that make a person suited to education?

Some people who do well at school will make great teachers. Some will be awful. But Teach First is built on the ludicrously arrogant premise that having got into a Russell Group university means you can be quickly and easily converted into a good teacher. It’s that narrow, one-size-fits-all thinking at work again – the idea that there’s only one kind of ‘excellent’, and it works for everything. Top-of-the-field academics can and frequently do make terrible teachers. People who might have completely crashed and burned at school but have empathy and the ability to connect with kids are often far, far better (it’s certainly been true in our experience – some of the worst teachers we ever had were Cambridge academics, and some of the best were state sector-ers who readily admitted they flunked school themselves).

And let’s be brutally honest – in a society as grotesquely unequal as ours, ‘high-flying’, in a grim majority of cases, basically means rich. That’s a tragic, unavoidable fact. Yes, Teach First might be ‘open to people of all backgrounds’. But the reality is that most people who embark on the scheme are from already affluent families.

Given their laudable interest in tackling disadvantage – ‘how much you achieve in life should not be determined by how much your parents earn’ says the TF website, much more on-message than the DoE’s – Wigdortz and co clearly don’t believe rich people are inherently superior. But if we accept that most Teach Firsters are wealthy kids with good grades, some of the assumptions the scheme makes about its intake are preposterous.

If you’ve actually been to a ‘top’-ranking university, the idea that the people that graduate from them are all ripe for conversion into inspirational leaders is laughable. Life experience, hardship, grit – these are things that give a person presence and character. A lot of Oxbridge types have all the spark and charisma of a plant pot. Plenty have been left emotionally squashed by pushy parents and ultra-competitive private schools, drilled with the idea that doing well in your exams and getting into the City is the most important thing in the world. A scary number lack basic empathy, and a fair few would fit a psychologist’s definition of ‘sociopath’. There are nice, genuine, well-adjusted people too, many of whom would probably make great teachers. But less, we’d argue, than you’re likely to get from a random selection of the general population.

A lot are completely clueless about reality as most people experience it, too. Staggeringly, it’s quite easy to find individuals who’ve never had anything to do with anyone who isn’t demographically identical to themselves – rich, white, privately educated. It begs the question, how are the children of the elite going to relate to deprived estate kids? It’s fine, Teach First responds. We show them a Panorama documentary on inner-city poverty. But if watching a TV show was enough to break through years of ingrained societal indifference to the plight of others, everyone who’s seen The Wire would be a communist.

The sad thing is, if the kind of people who hop on the Teach First express looked critically at their own lives, they’d come up with a much better explanation for educational disadvantage, and a fairly straightforward way of doing something about it.

Why do rich kids tend to do better at school that less affluent kids? It’s simple – it’s because they have all the educational resources they could ever need lavished on them from the minute they can talk, are brought up to think jumping through the hoops of the exam system is all-important, then dispatched to socially segregated schools where everyone’s basically the same as they are. In short, it’s a combination of money and culture.

You’ll never meaningfully tackle educational disadvantage in a society this obscenely unequal. Teach First is trying to address the problem in a way that’s agreeable to banks and consultancy firms – the people and the institutions that helped bring about this ridiculously lop-sided state of affairs in the first place. Unsurprisingly, they’re not proving very successful. To really ‘make a difference’, you’d have to do the kinds of things the Platinum Partners have done their darnedest to wipe off the political map – comprehensively redistribute wealth, abolish private education, and pour massive state-led investment into the areas of greatest need.

And as for the culture – it’s always presented as education’s, the governments’, society’s fault that more ‘high-fliers’ don’t go into teaching. In fact, the values and the priorities of the high-fliers themselves are far more to blame. Many of them have been brought up in a cut-throat-competitive, self-aggrandising culture that fawns over the richest and prioritises big salaries, status and conspicuous consumption over helping other people.

‘Those that can’t, teach’, says the wearisome, insulting cliché. It’s more a case of those that ‘can’ – can get eighteen A stars, can be captain of the polo team, can be Head Boy and get an interview at Goldman Sachs – just don’t want to teach. Maybe, just maybe, caring vocations that are more about the social good you do than what you take home at the end of the day aren’t compatible with that stark, transactional way of looking at the world.