Johanne Clifton_1
Johanne Clifton
Head of Curriculum and Virtual Learning, Elliot Foundation Academies Trust (London, South East)

Teach First’s trainee teachers made sure our pupils didn’t fall behind

Johanne worked with Teach First to create a structured recruitment programme during the pandemic which led to a robust strategy for future staff development.

Johanne Clifton has oversight of curriculum and virtual learning provision across 30 primary schools in London, West Midlands and East Anglia. We spoke to Johanne about how Teach First supported Elliot Foundation Academies during the pandemic, helping the Trust recruit outstanding trainee teachers who make an immediate impact. 

I was a headteacher for 16 years and became part of the Elliot Foundation in 2012 as Head of Billesley Primary School, an outstanding school in Birmingham. During the pandemic, I joined the central Trust team. Despite being no technology expert, my wealth of experience across the curriculum made sense for the role of Virtual Learning Lead.

I started the job in March 2020, before the pandemic affected everything. My initial remit was to ensure a broad curriculum offer through Google Classroom and to support schools with catch up programmes. But of course, once the Covid-19 crisis hit that focus had to shift – fast – with the delivery of off-site learning for all children. 

The Trust and academies feel supported by Teach First 

During the pandemic, it was challenging to recruit new teachers. We couldn’t meet people or induct them properly. Without meeting face-to-face, it’s hard to get to know people. It’s also a real challenge for the trainees. The pandemic meant that building relationships was harder and there was no opportunity for new teachers to have direct experience of teaching in a classroom.  
Our Trust’s Chief Executive (Hugh Greenway) recognised this growing crisis and formed an alliance with Teach First to access their support network. Through Teach First’s Training Programme, we were able to quickly recruit 15 new teachers across the Trust.  

Some of our heads hadn't worked with Teach First before and weren’t confident about making the leap. But catch-up premium funding allowed us to create the additional posts in schools. We thought if we added capacity into the schools then the trainees would be able to start making a difference to prevent children falling behind, particularly from disadvantaged groups. But we discovered other positives as some schools got a taste of Teach First and the quality of the candidates and the trainees. It was an opportunity for the heads to benefit from the extra staff and see the excellent approach brought by the Teach First trainees.  

As part of our support, we also used the Teach First Academic Mentoring Programme. This was fundamental in helping us build relationships between Teach First and our academies. The academic mentors were able the help in cases where the demand for academic support out-matched the supply. In my home school, some mentors were leading small group tuition and stepping up to lead new initiatives, such as additional support programmes for vulnerable children who were learning from home.   

The trainee recruitment process

The recruitment process that Teach First undertakes is robust, so that quality assurance process is built into the programme. Then there's the national recognition. If a headteacher gets someone from Teach First, chances are they're going to be bright graduates with plenty of determination and skill, because wow, if you get through the programme, that takes some determination. That gave us confidence. Rather than random supply teachers, or perhaps trainees from another route, we've got people of a high quality going in the places where they were needed.  

In cases where staff fell ill, we were so confident with the trainees that they stepped in and started leading the classes. The trainee’s mentors were switched around and adaptations were made, but we knew that they were able to teach those children and tackle the challenges the schools were facing. That gave our schools the confidence that there wouldn’t be an interruption to their pupil’s education. 

Collaboration keeps children on track 

We've got a cohort now where we've had success. Though we’ve faced challenges through the pandemic, and this cohort did have a trainee leave the programme, we recognise that this is going to happen. It’s the reality of the job.  

The thing that impressed me is that if we experienced any issues, all I had to do was drop an email or pick up the phone. Behind Teach First, there is a team of people to help with almost anything, so you can go to them for support. 

The right process is followed and that's what impressed us. The HR teams worked together to make sure the school and the trainee was supported. 

At its simplest level, recruiting with Teach First meant that we had enough staff in school to make sure that children did not fall behind. Which is so important, because we talk about catch up and recovery programmes, but the whole point of our strategy was to try to make sure they didn't fall behind in the first place, which people sometimes forget. 

Trainees bring energy and ideas 

The trainees master the technology and are willing to have a go at thinking up new ideas and actively contributing. Sometimes having a trainee can be seen as taxing to a school’s resources. Teach First trainees are different. In our schools, they were leading projects, suggesting and contributing their skills to the education that our schools offer. 

The recruitment process is tough, but trainees get a lot of support along the way which shows the kind of aptitude they have. Trainees aren’t just ambitious. They have an aspiration to do the best for our children. And they put that at the heart of everything they do. They’ve made an active decision to take on Teach First’s Training Programme. To me that shows they’ve got that commitment to make a real difference in their career and to improving those children’s life chances. Obviously, our recruitment strategy and investing in the workforce is a key part of that.  

We've seen the quality of the trainees and the benefits from having extra time for strategy in the schools where those trainees excel. We've got the opportunity to keep developing the trainees we've got, and we are confident knowing we have Teach First’s support with this. For example, with getting trainees placed onto leadership programmes. Going forward we'll definitely be exploring those options available to us, while continuing to recruit some of the best trainees into our schools. 

Are you looking to grow your teaching capacity for next year? Find out more about hiring trainee teachers through our Training Programme here.  

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