Two years in - Teach First and schools
Our CEO Russell Hobby looks back on his first two years here, and what he's learned by seeing first hand how Teach First and partner schools work together.
When I joined Teach First two years ago it was clear there was no shortage of energy, urgency, commitment or passion. I saw my contribution as focusing that energy so we could burn more quickly through the inequalities in education.
Coming from a role representing school leaders, I also wanted to develop Teach First’s relationship with schools. Teach First has a foot in several camps - and this is a strength - but our relationship with schools is pivotal. It has not always been easy or clear. So, two years in, I want to share where we’re up to with teachers, school leaders and the education community.
One of the highlights of these years has been visiting some of the most inspiring schools in the country. In these schools, I’ve seen that people are at the heart of success, not structures. And, although they attach a high priority to recruiting staff, they also know that enabling them to perform is critical. Success comes from good people in good places. This means leaders fill a delicate role on the cusp of the school – hopefully neither isolating nor amplifying, but rather carefully selecting the ideas and trends they permit inside. On the one hand they create boundaries to build a place where teachers can thrive and do great work for students. This means focus, consistency and simplicity - doing a few of the right things really well for a sustained period of time. On the other hand, leaders also create connections, using carefully selected networks of support to get their school what it needs.
This learning has shaped our work with schools. It can be best summed up under the headings of why, what and how.
Our ‘why’ has not changed in sixteen years. We exist to help build a fair education for all. Too few children get the start that will help them unlock all the opportunities this world has to offer. A child from a disadvantaged background is, on average, 18 months behind when they take their GCSEs, and is three times more likely to be excluded. We cannot build justice, prosperity or unity without a fair education system. This is why we exist. Many people, and schools of course, feel exactly the same.
There are lots of forces affecting a young person’s start in life. But we think their school has a unique role to play. Most importantly in teaching, but also in understanding how other services come together in their community.
Every school works hard, but some schools have it harder. Given our purpose, we want to work with those schools serving communities that have been left behind and neglected, those tackling the biggest challenges. Schools that, too often themselves, are also last in line for resources and support while first in line for scrutiny and criticism. Our job is to serve and support these schools in the great work they do.
Schools need many things; we offer three that are important to long term success. Our recipe is “teachers + leaders + networks”.
We find talented people from all walks of life - many of whom have not considered teaching - and get them quickly into the classroom. We work with mentors in school and our university partners to help them grow as teachers through and beyond a two-year training programme. We support this via a post graduate diploma in education.
We attract people from a diverse range of backgrounds. From top universities, yes. But also around a third come to teaching from another profession. And 30% went to a school in a disadvantaged community.
It is a feature, not a bug, of Teach First that some trainees leave to do other important things. Many of them are in roles supporting education but all of them are ambassadors for schools and the young people they serve. This offer helps people take a risk on a career they had not considered but, more importantly, there are benefits to the whole sector: greater understanding and respect, better policy making and access to resources.
Many do stay. In fact, of the most recent cohort to finish their two years, over 83% have just started a third year in teaching. Nearly two thirds of everyone we’ve ever trained remain in teaching. We encourage this in two ways: career development opportunities and supportive leadership. We’re proud this has resulted in 67 headteachers who started their journey with us.
This is the second part of our recipe: school leadership. We work with existing leadership teams to develop teachers - when they are ready - as leaders. They then create the climate in which the next generation of teachers will thrive.
We now offer school leadership development for middle and senior leaders and teams. Crucially, and this is part of resetting our relationship with the sector, the majority of the people on our leadership programmes now began their teaching careers via other routes. We care about serving schools in the most disadvantaged communities; it shouldn’t matter where people start from if we share the same ideals.
Which brings us to the third part of our recipe: networks. Although schools are vitally important, they should not have to stand alone; they rely on external support to succeed. They also need other schools to help share good practices and expertise. Isolation makes an already tough job unnecessarily hard.
Teach First has a network of ambassadors from our programmes working inside and outside schools, united by a common cause and shared experience. We have a network of partners in businesses, charities and government, keen to help. Our aim is to mobilise these networks to surround schools with the ideas, resources and support they need. In every region we bring together some of the heads of our partner schools to learn from one another. There are thriving networks of teachers doing the same. The Shared Headship Network who are addressing the growing crisis of teacher retention and lack of headteachers. And Greater Depth, a growing network led by ambassadors in London passionate about sharing best practice across Primary & Early Years.
We want our partner schools to have the kind of network that an independent school can take for granted.
The three parts of our work are connected. Our teacher training programme selects for leadership potential and starts developing early leadership skills. It forges the potential for networks by developing shared experiences and long-standing friendships. Our leadership programmes are focused on creating the conditions for teachers to thrive and on helping schools access networks. In turn those networks support novice teachers to hone their skills and expert teachers to deepen them.
If you are a partner school of Teach First we want to find you great new teachers, work to develop your leaders and make our networks your networks. And we want to stick with you for the long term.
We don’t have all the answers. We’re only part of the solution, working alongside a whole range of people and organisations. But we have a particular range of support we can bring to bear, for a particular group of schools.
If you want to learn more about any of our mix of ingredients: teacher development, school leadership or networks – get in touch. Likewise, if there are things you think we could do better, let us know.