Bright, young things: graduate teachers help struggling schools

by Oct 17, 2011 No Comments

Could highflying new graduates help transform education in deprived Scottish schools?

“Absolute blind fear,” is the emotion Kim McCaughey felt most potently the night before her first day of teaching at a tough state school. “You have no idea what’s going to hit you the next day,” says the 21-year-old, who has grown to love her gruelling job in north-east England.

Fresh from Edinburgh University, she has been thrust into the thick of things, working 12- hour days and spending much of her weekend planning lessons. Kim is part of a new cohort of bright, young graduates who after just six weeks training are flung into classrooms housing some of Britain’s most deprived pupils.

She is one of 760 highfliers recruited by Teach First this year, a charity backed by dozens of leading companies, which sends top graduates to struggling schools on two-year contracts. Her school, Monkseaton Community High, was warned in a recent review it is at risk of being deemed “inadequate” – the lowest possible grade – by Ofsted if its performance does not improve.  But the International Business and Spanish graduate considers herself “lucky” to have been placed there, and has been “welcomed with open arms”.

“Being a new teacher on a brand new programme being introduced in schools that have never had it before is a challenge in itself,” she explains. “You just have to be totally committed, totally persevere and be resilient to anything that might crop up.”

This summer, Teach First was graded “outstanding” by Ofsted in its first ever inspection by the body. And the programme has spread rapidly throughout England since its birth in 2002. However, despite the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) recently allowing Teach First graduates to register in Scotland, it is yet to be allowed to expand north of the border. But earlier this year, former head of the inspectorate Graham Donaldson, in his review of teacher education, said Teach First could “complement” standard ways of entering the profession. Now the charity is on the cusp of discussing with Scottish universities how effective it might be for Scotland.

Amanda Timberg, Director of Leadership Development at Teach First, said: “We’re at the early stages of scoping out with different stakeholders whether or not we would be able to make an impact in Scotland. I think that in terms of the value that we could give to any community, it would be an additional partner looking to address the achievement gap.”

While Scotland has a strong tradition of high quality teaching, the disparity between deprived children and their better-off peers is a constant red flag in education circles. Just last month, new figures revealed children from the most deprived communities in Scotland are as much as 18 months behind in the development of their vocabulary by the time they go to school, compared to more affluent pupils.

Teach First charity, backed by leading companies, sends top graduates to struggling schools

Teach First, based loosely on Teach for America, expects graduates to become future leaders both “inside and outside” the classroom. Tony Blair’s second son Nicky, an Oxford graduate who is now a sports agent, was among the 2007 recruits.

Teach First seeks to find motivated, hardworking graduates to encourage and inspire pupils from poor backgrounds to fulfil their academic potential. Timberg says: “One of the main things we found when we were originally looking at the achievement gap was the lack of top graduates interested in teaching in challenging schools.” And in a challenging economic context, teaching quality matters more than ever. Despite a decade of radical reform, Scottish education is treading water compared to other European countries, an OECD report indicated last year.

The charity, Timberg says, needs the brightest and the best. She says Teach First attracts “people who are very ambitious and believe that the achievement gap is something that can be impacted and can eventually be eliminated.” In turn, the selection process is fierce. Candidates must have a 2:1 or first class degree and complete a lengthy online application form. If they make it through, they undergo rigorous behavioural interviews and teaching role play at an assessment centre.

As well as academic muscle, crucial characteristics are “respect, empathy, humility, resilience and leadership,” says Timberg. “Because we believe that being a prospective classroom teacher is the same as leadership.” The leadership development programme is seen as an alternative to the traditional teaching route of a degree followed by a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). Timberg believes Teach First is becoming considered a “more standard route” into teaching and compares “quite favourably” to the standard qualification.

It has certainly caught the eye of Scottish education leaders. Among them is Sue Bruce, Chief Executive of the City of Edinburgh Council, who believes Teach First could help revive teaching in flagging schools. “I think the main benefits of it are about inspiring young people to give something back in the classroom. Young people who are graduates are much closer in age to pupils in the classroom. Therefore it can almost be peer-to-peer discussion, although with a widened experience. I think anything that we can do in this current climate to encourage young people to think about their future studies or work opportunities, is helpful.”

However, she warns of overloading a system which in recent years has been unable to place graduate teachers. She adds that in Scotland, Teach First could help plug shortfalls in particular subjects across state schools.

For Kim, raising the aspirations of her Year 11s has been one of her proudest achievements. “For me to get them to aspire to anything more than a pass, is quite challenging,” she says. “I’ve had a good half an hour taken out of my lesson to debate with them about whether university is worthwhile or not. Their mindset is mindboggling.

They just hadn’t thought what it takes to get a B. You have to get down on their level. I was so passionate about university, probably because I’d just finished, and they didn’t believe that you don’t just sit in a library.”

Conservative MSP Liz Smith, who is also a former teacher, agrees: “It’s striking to me that the initial success is coming from disadvantaged communities. That’s very good news in terms of giving these children some self-esteem – making them feel that somebody is taking a very special interest in them. It probably brings a slightly different perspective to people coming through the normal teacher training process. I think it helps young people understand that there is something beyond school that might attract them.”

Teach First has been criticised as elitist and some say parachuting in top calibre graduates is insulting to existing teachers.  However, Timberg is quick to point out that in the 2011 cohort of Teach First candidates, only 21 per cent went to private schools.

Kim says her former school, Dumbarton Academy, would benefit from the programme. “When I went to university I met a lot of people who went to private school,” she says. “I’d never seen the gap in education before, and I hadn’t done any extra-curricular activities.”

So with training salaries between £17,260 and £21,242, why are top graduates postponing six-figure wage packets as lawyers, bankers or accountants? One answer is that Teach First is partly funded by private companies including Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs and Clifford Chance. Graduates can apply for internships, and sometimes jobs, to be taken up in the summer holidays and at the end of training contracts. Kim admits she was initially attracted by joining PWC until she heard an “inspirational” speech by a Teach First representative at university.

Critics have also pointed out that with golden contracts on the horizon, retaining these newly trained teachers in schools is bound to be problematic. But the number of Teach First graduates who stayed on in 2009 was nearly 70 per cent. Though overall, since 2003 just more than half remain in the education sector. At the moment, Kim is wildly enthusiastic and “can’t imagine doing anything else”. But it is easy to see, casting an eye over the list of elite, wealthy donors, why the numbers aren’t higher for those remaining in the profession.

With all its attributes, the reception to Teach First in Scotland has been until now lukewarm. One reason, says Smith, is funding. “In the current economic climate, you can’t expect the Government to fund the thing.” But she adds: “It’s a complementary process where they’re not actually taking a job away from existing teachers, they’re complementing them. If it can be proved on a results basis that it is a success, particularly in disadvantaged areas, I don’t think anybody in their right mind would want to complain about it.”

Part of the recent fanfare for the charity is research published last year by the University of Manchester. Academics found that schools challenged by deprivation which employ Teach First graduates have seen improved GCSE results. And the more graduates a school has, the better the results.

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