More on made not born: how teachers are created

Last night I caught up with the second episode of BBC3’s new series, ‘Tough Young Teachers’ that is all about the progress of a group of Teach First recruits. (Past episodes are available on the BBC i-player). The teachers featured were working in Harefield Academy, Crown Woods School and the Archbishop Lanfranc School. Although Teach First started as a programme for inner city schools, these three schools that are located in Uxbridge, Croydon, and Bexley, might better be characterised as suburban, and not inner city. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t challenging. Their Free School Meals measure for the Pupil Premium – anytime in the past six years on free school meals – ranges from 29.2% at The Harefield Academy, to 41.7% at Archbishop Lanfranc, and 46.2% at Crown Woods College according to DfE figures; all well above the national average. Both the latter two schools have a significant number of pupils whose native language isn’t English; although as a measure of the need for support it is probably worth re-visiting this indicator to see how it is calibrated. It might be better to classify whether pupils have a level of English that allows them to function effectively in a learning situation rather than know what their native tongue might have been.

All three schools have above average levels of persistent absence, and perform less well with least able pupils than their most able. According to the DfE, Archbishop Lanfranc is an 11-16 school, and the other two have sixth forms. This point worries me, since it is not clear how Teach First ensures any exposure to post-16 teaching for those placed in 11-16 schools? If they want to stay in teaching after two years, this lack of sixth form experience might restrict the range of schools willing to employ them. This is always a risk with a single-training location over courses that allow training in several schools during the programme.

Another risk of such single-school programmes also became apparent in last night’s episode. One of the group was seen facing considerable discipline challenges in their classroom. In a traditional programme of teacher preparation they would receive a second chance to start again in a new school on their next placement. This would allow for a fresh start and see whether they could improve with a new set of pupils. On Teach First, it was suggested last night that the choice is to be battle through or be sacked. In an earlier post last year, I commented how much Teach First appeared to spend on recruitment and selection, so it is worrying that someone can pass through selection, and the six weeks of training, and still face such challenges in a school where many pupils are there because of their sporting achievements: judging by their appearance, and that of the school, they are also generally working in a supportive learning establishment. But, television has to tell as story that entertains, informs and hopefully educates the viewer, so we may not know the real situation. However, that student was filmed sitting down in the classroom too much for my liking, although the arrangement of the furniture probably also didn’t help a new teacher.

For entertainment value, watching endless lessons can become a bit like watching paint dry for the average viewer, and even I looked at my watch a couple of times, so the storyline of the pupil recently returned from a spell in a Pupil Referral Unit offered an interesting counterpoint. Caleb was articulate, truculent, and as viewers know from Educating Yorkshire before Christmas, exactly the sort of pupil to challenge a school, and its experienced teachers, let along one just arrived from six weeks of basic training outside the classroom. No doubt viewers will see more of Caleb in later episodes.

By now the viewer also knows something of the personalities of the new recruits. They also know, if they didn’t already, that teaching is not easy, and there is no such thing as deference to authority in modern society. Respect has to be earned in the classroom as on the beat or by anyone in a position of authority.

As ever, one asks of oneself, how would I have fared?  I don’t know, but if it is any consolation to those training at present, my first year, admittedly with no training, and as a supply teacher in Tottenham, was far worse than some of the scenes from last night’s programme. I will watch future episodes with interest.