Teach First shouldn't get preferential treatment

Richard Harris's picture
Recently, we wrote here of our growing concern about the recruitment, development and retention of teachers, within a poorly understood and increasingly volatile system in England. Our concern is to recruit and train the best teachers possible, but feel that ideology is getting in the way, with some routes into teacher training receiving preferential treatment, whereas all routes into teaching would benefit from having the same opportunities.

We received some interesting response to our blog, with people wishing to remain anonymous because of the fear of repercussions as a result of speaking out.

We learn that Teach First, which is often presented in publicity as a “premier” route into teaching, is allowed to transfer allocated training places between subjects without financial penalty. This means that quotas in subjects which are harder to recruit (typically maths, science and modern foreign languages) can be transferred to subjects where it is easier to recruit (e.g. English and history). This allows Teach First to maximise their income and claim that they are able to recruit to their ‘targets’. This is a process denied to universities, for whom over- or under-recruiting to allocated training places is punished by financial penalties, and it can then be claimed that this sector is failing to recruit to target. This seems to give a privileged position to Teach First in terms of recruitment and finance.

It seems that for 2014 Teach First are struggling to recruit in maths and in science subjects - in the case of mathematics we understand that is some areas this under-recruitment appears to be around 20%. However, Teach First has been allowed to vire this shortfall, for example, in the northwest the maths places have been changed to English training places, and original recruitment targets have been changed to accommodate this.

This information is not easily or publically available and one wonders why?

Additionally, it is suggested for 2014 that under a quarter of mathematics Teach First recruits hold a maths degree. Now, we know that many teachers have degrees which are cognate to the subjects they teach, but in the case of maths, we wonder to what extent Teach First is able to provide subject knowledge enhancement for these non-specialists. Some universities run subject knowledge enhancement courses to support trainees without the necessary specialist degree subject, and these courses typically run over several months Teach First trainees receive 6 weeks intensive training prior to starting in schools, but this covers all aspects of teaching, not just subject knowledge. Although Teach First prides itself on recruiting only the very best candidates, concerns have been expressed to us about how many of these Teach First mathematics recruits without mathematics degrees would have gained a place on a PGCE course? The information we have been given suggests that this would not the case. Like Teach First, universities also look to recruit the highest calibre trainees into hard to recruit subjects and help them attain rapid and excellent progress. Most HEIs have a good track record in this, but invest time and incur additional cost to support non-specialists’ development into effective teachers.

We know that PGCE trainees pay £9000 for their training if they choose this training route into teaching. Teach First trainees however have the privilege of paying nothing for their training. The government does, however, pay Teach First (a charity) approximately £14,000 per trainee. This is public money. Comparing the costs of different routes into teaching is complex and figures are not readily available, however it is suggested that the overall training cost to prepare a teacher via Teach First is around £40,000 in total and is far more expensive than other routes.

Teach First recruits are expected to teach for two years, after which they can choose to leave the classroom. It seems that currently about 50% of the cohort leave teaching, which would seem a significant cost to the public purse. It seems particularly inequitable that PGCE trainees have to pay back their fees regardless of whether they stay in teaching or not whereas Teach First trainees pay nothing whether they stay in teaching or not.

We also know that an evaluation commissioned by Teach First into the quality of their trainees’ teaching has recently been carried out but for some reason this report is not publicly available. We also wonder when government will publish an audit of the public money which goes into this charity and whether this provision will show value for money.

We are not criticising the work of Teach First, nor the overall quality of its provision, but at a time when recruitment into teaching is a growing concern, it seems irresponsible to privilege one route into teaching at the expense of others, especially long-established routes with a proven track record of success.
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Jonathan Savage's picture
Mon, 09/06/2014 - 07:36

Great article. I am very critical about the work of Teach First. In all aspects, it is secretive and cultish. It's funding with public money (both all political parties) is a disgrace and it only serves to perpetuate it's own hyperbole. We have a perfectly good system of initial teacher education (that existed long before Teach First arrived) and should be supported fully.

What you have raised here is just a list of ways in which Teach First is given special treatment by policy makers - in terms of operation, funding, student experience, recruitment, etc. Many of these finer points are lost on the general public but those of us who work in ITE know that this is a significantly uneven playing field.

Like you, I have found it difficult to find people who will speak out about Teach First (whether they be students or tutors working on these programmes). They are often fearful about the revenge that will be dished out. In terms of university staff working on Teach First programmes (under contract), this means that disciplinary processes in relation to their job will be taken over by Teach First if they are seen to issue negative publicity about the organisation. It is scandalous and just another example of the paranoid approach to brand management that Teach First employs.

Thanks for highlighting the weaknesses in this organisation here. I would urge your readers to have a look at the many posts I've written about Teach First over the years. There's a summary here: http://www.jsavage.org.uk/category/ite/teach-first/

Jon Tibke's picture
Mon, 09/06/2014 - 09:54

A perceptive article followed by a well informed reply from Jonathan.
It is actually not the case that only students with the 'best' degrees take up the places on Teach First.
Asked at a recent event about the 50% drop out rate after two years, the CEO of Teach First responded that this happens in many professions and that many of these teachers later come back into teaching. I doubt he has any real evidence for the first comment and he cannot possibly have any for the second.
As Jonathan points out, there was no need for any of this or School Direct, given Ofsted's own evidence that HEI led ITE partnerships were 80% good or better. Much more would have been gained by resourcing and developing the existing system, but that would not suit the underlying ideology. I am a bit fed up of listening to people on big salaries talk about 'the new landscape' and 'moving forward in changing times'. Sounds like a complete sell out to me

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 09/06/2014 - 10:26

Both Teach First and Schools Direct do not guarantee a steady flow of trained subject teachers particularly shortage ones. As Richard and Caroline point out - Teach First can fill STEM or modern language vacancies with graduates in other subjects. And Schools Direct depends on the willingness and ability of schools to recruit trainees annually.

Critics have warned about a looming teacher shortage crisis.

At the same time, some universities are closing their teacher training departments.


A 50% drop-out rate after two years is inexcusable. It suggests many Teach Direct participants had no intention of doing more than their mandatory two years - their short sojourn in schools being viewed as something useful to put on a CV before moving to better things (a think tank, perhaps). But pupils needs stability not an endless round of raw recruits.

Alex Jones's picture
Mon, 09/06/2014 - 11:57

Just asked Sam Freedman (Head of Research at Teach First) about this and he asserts that there is no evaluation. Wonder why there are these contradictory statements. Who is right?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 09/06/2014 - 14:00

Alex - according to Durham University, a project to evaluate Teach First has been funded by the following grants:

"Teach First Evaluation (£73021.65 from Teach First)
Teach First Impact Assessment (£102258.35 from Teach First)".

That's a lot of money to spend on an evaluation which Teach First denies knowledge of.

See here.

Paul Hopkins's picture
Mon, 09/06/2014 - 12:50

Good article. Teach First has had some success in getting people into difficult to recruit schools and there are some smashing people involved. As you point out the cards are very stacked. Just one thing to add to the comments above - can we please get away from the equation a good teacher is the same as a good degree this is (a) very PGCE focussed (remember many primary teachers still do a BA / B.Ed) and (b) there is no evidence that this is true.

Jonathan you are correct about the problems in the lack of openness and transparency of TF - and also where is the media scrutiny? I have been trying to get media interested in this for a while with very little success.

More on this here (http://paulltnt2013.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/what-is-good-teacher.html?vie...) if you are interested.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 09/06/2014 - 13:54

Paul - thanks for the link. It's salutary to be reminded that the Newsom Report of 1963 regarded knowledge of teaching methodology as important as knowing the subject.

When the Central Advisory Council for Education said in the Newsom report:

"The prospect of these schools staffed to an increasing extent by untrained graduates is, in our view, intolerable.”

the Council was quoting the view given in the Eighth Report of the National Advisory Council on the Training and Supply of Teachers.

Fifty years on we have a Secretary of State who doesn't regard using untrained graduates as "intolerable". Quite the opposite, he thinks being trained in teaching methods is unnecessary.

Jen's picture
Thu, 12/06/2014 - 21:34

You mention TF gets preferential treatment, percentage wise what is the difference in government funding it gets compared to the other routes?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 07/07/2014 - 10:08

According to Schools Improvement Net, the Times has reported that some Teach First teachers have criticised the quality of their training. It's about time the Durham University evaluation of Teach First was published - delay only fuels suspicions that Teach First isn't as wonderful as it is claimed.

Paul Hopkins's picture
Sun, 11/01/2015 - 21:11

Janet (et al) any news on the Durham report?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 12/01/2015 - 08:13

Paul - according to Dr S Ward, a lecturer at Durham's School of Education, the findings of the 'national evaluation' of Teach First have been 'shared with Teach First to inform practice'.

However, the evaluation referred to above undertaken by Drs Merrell and Beverton doesn't seem to be in the public domain.

Durham Uni is advertising a seminar (undated) which sounds like an advert for Teach First. It stresses how TF training can lead to high-flying management jobs in other sectors. Nevermind that any teacher training (which, remember, the Gov't says isn't really necessary to become a teacher) would promote the same transferable skills.

Stuff like this increases the perception that TF is like an extended gap year where graduates spend time down with the 'disadvantaged' before moving on to more lucrative employment.

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