Toughening up young teachers: Is Teach First really the answer to perceived problems in initial teacher education?

From January 9th BBC 3 began broadcasting a six part series on Thursday nights called ‘Tough Young Teachers’, which follows the experiences of six graduates as they train to teach in challenging schools under the Teach First programme. Reaction from the media has been predictable – in a recent Sunday Times article titled ‘School of Hard Knocks’, Sian Griffiths  championed the cause of these beginning teachers under the strapline ‘An army of high-flying, idealistic young graduates is winning a tough battle to raise standards in some of Britain’s most deprived schools’. Depictions of the schools in which these new recruits train are uniformly bleak, as are most of the pupils they encounter; in direct contrast to the schools in which the trainees were themselves educated (Charterhouse in the case of one of the main trainees featured in Griffith’s article, Charles Wallendahl).

The statistics about Teach First are interesting: following the charity’s launch 11 years ago some 5,000 teachers have trained under its auspices. Trainees receive six weeks’ leadership training followed by two years of ‘on the job’ experience, which will gain them a teaching qualification. The target for recruitment in 2014/15 is 2,000, of whom just over 50% will stay in teaching following qualification (based on trends revealed in previous data from Teach First).  The Chief Executive of Teach First is Brett Wigdortz, a management consultant who established a similar programme in the US under the banner ‘Teach for America’ – he is obviously someone who is driven by the ways in which children in disadvantaged circumstances can be better taught. Tellingly though, as Griffiths makes clear in her article, ‘Teach First is backed by leading companies including Accenture and Deloitte, and an undoubted lure is the chance of a job with one of the sponsors after the first two years of teaching’.

Clearly it would be nonsensical to dissuade high flying graduates from coming into the teaching profession. What is less clear is whether models of initial teacher education (ITE) which focus on the ‘training’, rather than ‘education’, of new teachers – often without the significant involvement of higher education – are the most appropriate in preparing them for life in the classroom. School-led models of training have ideological roots (as, of course, may university-based courses) that can have a damaging effect on the future growth of the teaching profession. Clyde Chitty (2009) is characteristically unambiguous when he asserts that ‘’education’ is all about transforming the mind so as to equip us for independent judgement and rational action; whereas ‘training’ should be directed towards practical skills for particular ends’. Acquiring a toolbox of skills as a teacher is not enough; and, as such, being a good teacher ‘cannot be achieved by a short stint of ‘on-the-job’ training’. The choice of routes into teaching is wide, but arguably they are not of equal quality (and, worryingly, possession of a teaching qualification is not an essential attribute of those who teach in free schools or academies). Partnerships between schools and universities have served generations of new teachers well in their preparation for the classroom – the experience of learning to teach requires appropriate support and is, in part, an intellectual endeavour. Surely a route into teaching that requires additional reserves of toughness from new recruits, while at the same time exhibiting a reductionist view of teaching as simply a ‘craft’ that has no need of either theory or research, is far from ideal?

Graham Butt


Chitty, C (2009) Initial Teacher Training or Education? ITT or ITE? Forum, Vol 51 (2) p.259-261

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