From teacher to policymaker in the Department for Education
Teach First ambassador Will Bickford-Smith reflects on changing lives at both classroom and government level.
I joined the Teach First Training Programme because I believed great teaching had the power to change lives. I wasn’t sure if I’d be any good - but knew that I had the motivation and passion for my subject needed to get me off to a decent start.
I taught Citizenship and A-Level Politics, leading as KS4 Citizenship coordinator in my second year. I won’t lie – it was tough. For me, the biggest challenge was behaviour; every lesson felt like a constant battle to be listened to. The emphasis at the time was on managing this through creating ‘engaging’ lessons. But no matter how whizzy I made them (think endless card sorts and using coloured cups for a mini plenary), I struggled to get pupils to stay on task. It’s great to see that Teach First’s training is now much more focused on evidence-based methods to manage behaviour effectively, drawing on the work of experts like Doug Lemov and Tom Bennett.
Of all moments in my teaching career, the highlight was tutoring my Year 7 form. It was such a great opportunity, nurturing a group of children through the difficult transition from primary to secondary school. I implemented silent reading time at the start of the school day and created a rewards system (with special badges) to recognise those who’d made a particular effort or contribution to school life that week.
Joining the Department for Education
After Teach First, I decided I wanted to give something else a go. I spent a year as a management consultant, working with a range of public sector clients. During this time, I realised that I wanted to work in education again, so in 2018 joined the Department for Education to work on T Levels policy.
In my current role, I work on the Government’s strategy for the teaching workforce, to make sure we’re driving up recruitment, retention and teaching quality. Whilst I’m not teaching any more, I am still inspired by the belief in the emancipatory power of education. As Becky Allen says in her book The Teacher Gap:
“Education is unique among the public services in its ability to propel people forward. Health care, social care and policing are, of course, vital. But they focus on protecting people from risk or putting then back on their feet after misfortune… Only education gives us the power to go further.”
A great education system can change a nation and I’ve been playing a part in creating a world-class education system. My team developed the Teacher Recruitment & Retention Strategy, which set out the Government’s plan for ensuring we have excellent teachers for every child. Since this strategy was published, I’ve been leading policy projects to build on it and support policy teams delivering our reforms.
How the Government can learn from teachers
Working in education policy is fascinating. Along the way, I’ve learned that Government can make a significant impact to schools, but also that Government doesn’t have all of the answers. Real change has to be driven by committed school leaders and teachers in their classrooms.
We’re leaving no stone unturned in ensuring we support them to do this. We’re always reflecting and learning – and continuing to speak with teachers is an important part of this. I remember being given the chance to be part of that discussion when I was a Teach First teacher; now I’m on the ‘inside’, I’m keen to ensure that others get that chance too.