Why are programmes like Teach First bad for you (and the teaching profession)?

“I’ve spoken to HR a few times, and they tell me our contracts are with the CEO. Look, I know he’s really busy, but we were promised our contracts would be posted to us in August. Now it’s been two months since the start of term, and I just don’t feel comfortable about the situation.”

These were my words to the head of trainee teachers for the Trust (a collection of schools) employing me, a fresh-faced Teach First participant. When I signed up for Teach First, I never imagined that begging for an employment contract from my school would be necessary. Surely a large and prestigious graduate programme would ensure that their participants have employment contracts, right? Wrong. The first of many things I was wrong about.

When I finally did get to read my contract, my heart sank. It was not worth the paper it was written on. Although it did conform to the standard set of guidelines agreed with the teachers’ unions (called “the Burgundy Book”) in terms of sick leave etc., it allowed my employer to change the terms of my employment at any time with a month’s notice, prevented me from participating in any paid or unpaid activity without my employer’s consent (yes — it was that vague) and clearly stated that I had to carry out any task requested of me by the Headteacher.

But, still, I would be OK, I told myself. After all, I was supposed to be protected by a separate agreement between the school and Teach First. My university, as the body that would be deciding whether or not I had earned Qualified Teacher Status at the end of the year, also had an obligation to ensure that I was being treated appropriately for a trainee teacher.

Well, within a few weeks of starting teaching in September, two of my classes were changed and I told my university tutor how stressful this was and the detrimental impact it had on the kid’s behaviour and how hard it was to establish relationships all over again with new kids who are so unsettled by the chaotic way in which the transition happened.

The kids were not even informed they had been moved to new classes, and then when they were given new timetables they were wrong. For weeks we had kids going to the wrong classes. Surely this would mean that taking attendance was a nightmare? Not so, the registers automatically marked all kids as present by the end of every lesson. I never had to take my register. (This is as dangerous and unethical as it sounds.)

The next time I spoke to my university tutor, I told her about an incident where a boy was verbally abusive to me in front of a class and there was no reaction at all from the school — not even a reply to my email to my Head of Department and the boy’s Head of Year. She raised this with Teach First, who promised me that my school mentor would investigate.

Far from getting any kind of follow-up from the school about this, a week later my obviously-annoyed mentor handed me my new timetable — which had gone up by 3 hours. At this point, the number of contact hours in my timetable exceeded the maximum permissible for a trainee teacher. I informed Teach First the same day, but it would be another three months before they were able to bring my timetable back down. My confidence in the system? Non-existent. By this point it was all too obvious to me that Teach First’s relationship with the school was far more important to them than my welfare and development as a teacher.

Long story short, by May:

  • The school had gone on to break its agreement with Teach First in 3 more ways.
  • I’d had 6 more changes to my classes (I’d taught ~500 different kids over the course of the year).
  • My mentor had not done a single one of the six mandatory observations of me supposed to be conducted every half-term with formal written feedback.
  • Several of the teachers in my department had resigned and the two Deputy Headteachers in my school had vanished (yes, actually just disappeared without a word to anyone). Many classes were being taught by cover teachers, which put an added strain on everyone else.
  • I and the other Teach First trainee placed in the school had requested a transfer to another school for the second year of the programme, which is the induction year as a Newly Qualified Teacher.

Teach First no longer sends participants to that school, but not before we were bullied and gaslighted about the school’s unsuitability for a trainee teacher and lack of support. Worst of all, after submitting transfer requests we were suddenly threatened with not being granted Qualified Teacher Status after perfectly normal and positive progress reports and grading all year. Angry and disgusted by Teach First’s pathetic response to the school following our transfer request, both me and the other trainee refused their offer of a transfer to another school for our NQT year. We both left teaching despite now being qualified, after joining Teach First because we wanted to pursue teaching as a career.

Most Teach First participants are around 22 years old and experiencing their first real job. They are rapidly overwhelmed and rushed through from stage to stage with barely a moment to breath and think about what is actually happening to them. They are easily manipulated and intimidated by school leaders and discouraged from participating in any kind of union activity during their time on the programme. Before they know it, it’s over, the hoops jumped through, the boxes ticked and there they are: fully qualified teachers.

The issues I faced are not unique to Teach First. My school had many trainee teachers from different routes. I heard story after story from other junior teachers in the school about being over-timetabled, frequent timetable changes, no support with behaviour management, no mentoring or training and, worst of all, being threatened with a lack of progress against the Teachers’ Standards should they dare to complain. When paperwork needed to be submitted to a university, it would just be fabricated in time for the deadline. I heard so many stories, from my own school and others, of fraudulent paperwork being submitted to universities for QTS sign off, that I genuinely wonder how much of the documentation presented to the Department for Education each year for this purpose is actually authentic.

Teach First participants are an ideal recruitment source for corrupt school administrations looking to make changes by getting rid of union activity in the school and violating professional norms, ethics and indeed contractual agreements. The year before I joined the school, they had systematically pushed out any teachers involved in union activity, confident that they would be able to replace them with impressionable young things who would just do as they’re told.

A tacit agreement arises between such schools and their Teach First participants: you don’t complain, and we will just talk about how wonderful you are and sign anything that needs signing. The results are as disastrous to the well-being and professional development of the trainee teachers as can be imagined.

In conclusion?

My advice to anyone considering training as a teacher in the UK:

  • Be wary of programmes like Teach First that invest a lot in marketing — they are looking to beguile you and draw you away from better avenues.
  • Talk to an insider in the school in which you will be placed before you agree to go there.
  • Be aware of your rights. Your university is obliged to ensure you are being treated properly and you can sue them for any failure in this regard.
  • Put everything in writing.

Got your own stories or advice about choosing a teacher training programme? Please comment!

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