Damian Hinds is MP for East Hampshire and chairs the All-party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility.
No education system can be better than its teachers. Blindingly obvious, but still worthy of repetition. More than anything else the success of British schools will be driven by our ability to attract and retain those who stand out at the front of the class.
The importance of great teachers is even more pronounced for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. For these youngsters the effect of having a really high-performing teacher, versus an under-performing one, may be the equivalent of as much as one full year’s worth of schooling: 1.5 years’ worth of learning with the very effective teacher, 0.5 year’s worth with a poorly performing one.
Teaching, though difficult, can also be incredibly fulfilling; it is often referred to not just as a profession but as a vocation. The sense of mission is sharpened when educating, nurturing and inspiring those who need it most. BBC Three’s engaging series Tough Young Teachers follows six Teach First trainees through their first years in three schools; Michaels Gove and Wilshaw have been among its 2 million avid viewers. London, where Tough Young Teachers is set, has really embraced Teach First and fully 48 per cent of the scheme’s teachers are in the capital.
Back in the early 2000s, London was the problem child of British education. It suffered from below average exam results, high teacher vacancy rates and a perception of poor discipline. Now, disadvantaged students in London are almost 50 per cent more likely than those elsewhere to get five GCSEs at A*-C, twice as likely to go to university and up to four times as likely to go to a Russell Group university.
There are a number of likely factors behind London’s success. The London Challenge, introduced by the last government, certainly contributed – but the improvement pre-dates the London Challenge and happened also in schools not covered by it; when it was attempted to replicate the Challenge in other cities, the results did not follow. At least as big a factor will have been population change (by GCSEs, London’s non-native-English speakers actually outperform others). There was also a massive focus on leadership and on teacher recruitment: Teach First has been an important part of that.
Teach First is a direct route into the classroom for high calibre graduates. Those doing it commit to working for two years in schools facing challenging circumstances. Some go on to other professions, recognising the value of developing more leaders with a real understanding of education and disadvantage across all fields. But the majority do stay in teaching, with 54 per cent of those who’ve completed it in the last ten years still in the classroom and many more working in education more broadly.
Teach First teachers can have a great ‘positive disruptive effect’ – asking to observe and learn from long-standing teachers, and bringing new ideas of their own. They will typically be high-scoring graduates with strong subject knowledge; they themselves offer a good role model to pupils. Crucially, they also often increase choice for headteachers at recruitment time.
Teach First has done the profession another favour: raising its profile and kudos. Teaching is now the top destination for graduates from Oxford University. In time, it may provide another key source of great teachers: Teach First Returners – who may have also worked in industry and started a family and for whom full- or part-time teaching may once again be an attractive prospect.
For now, though, the challenge is a geographic one. That virtually half of participants are in a single region is partly because London is where the programme originated only a decade ago, and is a city that has embraced it. It is also because the capital has been many participants’ destination of choice. Offsetting the costliness of London are other attractions. While some of these may not be replicable, others are, particularly the ‘network’ effect of being somewhere with a strong support group of fellow Teach Firsters.
Teach First is spreading. One innovation is concentrating efforts in towns, like Bournemouth, where the network effect will exist and it will be possible to track the impact the programme has on results. More generally, it is important that the speed of growth doesn’t outpace capacity. But there is much potential nationwide. I hope Tough Young Teachers series 2 may be filmed in Newcastle, Birmingham or Manchester.