Is Teach First working?

Here is the transcript of the presentation I gave at ResearchEd 2013 this weekend.

So this is a question that’s fascinated me for the last ten years, since it was set up in 2002: is Teach First working?

Headteachers who’ve had Teach First-ers in for a decade are positive. Sally Coates at Burlington Danes says: ‘Teach First has been a transformational force in schools, and a major lever in raising achievement by pupils, changing the educational landscape in Britain’. And Joan McVittie at Woodside High says: ‘Teach First graduates who worked in my school made a huge difference to the progress of the school and the life chances of young people.’

The blogosphere takes a much more sceptical approach:

‘Teach First is like marmite – you either love it or hate it.’

‘Teach First is like cherry cola – it’s good, but it’s not to everyone’s taste’.

‘Teach First has a theory of change much like Brownian motion, stirring some good people into the mix and hoping they bounce off each other’.

Teach First is … ‘papering over the cracks’, ‘sticking plaster on the wound’, ‘a race to the bottom on salaries’, ‘not a blueprint for teacher training’, ‘a sugar-rush of boosterism’, ‘not bullet-proof’, ‘not a miracle cure’, ‘a stepping stone into the private sector’, ‘blowing their own trumpet’, ‘CV-polishing careerists’, ‘a Trojan Horse getting corporate types into education, or for getting educational types into corporations’; ‘a transient flirtation with education’, ‘indoctrination and brainwashing’, ‘cult-of-saviours-syndrome’, ‘evangelical zealots’, ‘a cure to the disease of salary costs for heads’, ‘a successful graduate recruiter, rather than a recruiter of successful teachers’; ‘a figleaf diverting the gaze from the thin end of a wedge’, ‘parachuted-in whizz-kids…’ The metaphors are mixed and the analogies are colourful! But beyond the blogosphere, let’s get to grips with what Teach First is about.

I think this breaks down into a few questions: what problem is Teach First set up to solve? How would we know if it’s working? And what could we do to improve its impact? And then I’ll end with three hopes I have for Initial Teacher Training more broadly.


The problem of educational inequality

Let’s start with the first question: what problem is Teach First set up to solve? I think a helpful snapshot of the problem is on four dimensions of educational inequality: pupil attainment, pupil access to higher education, teacher recruitment and teacher retention in schools in challenging circumstances. Let’s take each in turn.


For pupils, attainment in secondary education is vastly unequal. There is a 25% gap between the poorest pupils and their wealthier peers in GCSE attainment. That means that in England, two in three pupils leave school without prospects for employment or further education. That’s incredibly damaging, and it should be something we’re all concerned about.

Access to higher education is also unequal. Whereas over 90% of private school students go on to University, less than 20% of our poorest pupils do. Again, this is a travesty in our education system.

On teachers, we know from decades of school improvement research that the greatest factor on pupil attainment and access is teacher quality. But in schools with the highest proportion of poorer pupils, recruitment and retention is difficult. Only 1 in 10 teachers on qualifying consider working in schools in challenging circumstances. Only around 50% of teachers are still in teaching after 5 years. In challenging schools, that figure is much lower; anecdotally, there are plenty of tough schools I know where the turnover is 50% annually.


So Teach First is tackling a fundamental set of problems in our education system, problems that we all feel strongly about. And it’s worth saying that 100% of Teach First teachers are placed in challenging schools.

But under what conditions could we say Teach First is working? I think there are two conditions:

Viability: Is the strategy viable?

Impact: Is the strategy having any impact on the problem?


On viability, what I’d like to look at is: how are Teach First doing on recruitment, completion, training and retention?

On recruitment, Teach First is one of the most selective routes into teaching. The key metric here is applicants per place: Teach First has 7 applicants per place, rivaling high performing school systems worldwide like Singapore, Canada, Korea and Finland.

ImageOn completion, there seems to be the assumption that many Teach First participants drop out early. But completion rates compare well with those on the PGCE.


On training, I have heard the accusation banded around that training underprepares Teach First trainees to enter teaching. When surveyed immediately after the intensive residential six week Summer Institute, which is the starting point for the QTS year, most felt that the preparation was satisfactory, but not exceptional. It would be fascinating to know how these views evolved over time, but you can already see that only just over half think that the Summer Institute were as well prepared as possible to begin teaching.


That’s from an internal perspective; externally, when inspected by Ofsted in 2011, across 11 categories and 4 regions, Teach First’s training provision was rated outstanding for 44 out of 44 categories, both for effectiveness, and for its capacity to improve. The gap between Ofsted’s outstanding rating, and participant’s satisfactory rating, shows just how high expectations are amongst trainees – and also that Teach First’s Initial Teacher Training still has a way to go to improve.


So, on recruitment and completion in particular, Teach First seems to be working. What about retention? Partly due to the name – (Teach First … Then What?) – there’s the assumption that most leave education, and most leave teaching. But actually that assumption isn’t true. Of all the Teach First ambassadors across all cohorts since 2003, 74% of them remain in education, and 54% of all of them remain in teaching. Most Teach First ambassadors stay in education and teaching. The distinction is that those in education are either in the civil service or educational social enterprise sector, but not in schools.


Over time, retention rates of those staying in teaching are improving. The trend is for over 60% to stay in teaching to complete a third year, and over 50% to stay for a fifth year. There has been some controversy over one data point from an early cohort, and the claim that being on Teach First makes you five times more likely to quit teaching than other routes. This chart shows that that is an isolated data point taken out of context. In the long run, in data of six to eight years, the clear long-term trend is that retention of teachers is rising.


What’s driving this? My hypothesis is that it’s to do with career changers. In the early cohorts, the vast majority of Teach First teachers arrived straight out of University. Even by 2009, just 10% had 3 or more of experience outside the classroom since graduating. Since 2011, that proportion has more than doubled to over 20%. This is the reason I believe the trend will continue. Anecdotally, I’m a career changer, having spent 4 years outside of education before starting on Teach First, and if you ask me, Katie Ashford, Laura McInerney and Daisy Christodoulou (all also speaking at ResearchED) or plenty of others like us, we’d say that teaching and education for us is not a two-year project, but a lifelong commitment. ‘Teach First’ is swiftly becoming a misnoma as more and more ‘Teach On’. As more and more career changers enter teaching, I’d suggest that increased retention rates will continue. So, what I’ve said is that recruitment is strong, retention is rising and training has much to improve.



So, is Teach First having any impact? When Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai was in 1972 asked about what he thought the impact of the 1789 French revolution was, he said it was ‘too early to tell’. If it was too early to tell after almost 200 years, after 10, it’s a difficult assessment to make. But we can perhaps start by asking a few questions.

Are Teach First teachers contributing in schools, or are they struggling? What do headteachers say? What do QTS ratings tell us? Are they staying on to lead in schools?

Far from damaging the education of their pupils, Teach First participants contribute positively to their schools, particularly on pupil aspirations and attainment, according to headteachers. Over 85% of headteachers surveyed said that Teach First-ers in their first years already positively influence school morale, pupils’ attainment and aspirations. Only 2% of headteachers disagreed.


QTS ratings tell a similar tale. Over 80% of Teach First trainees are rated good of outstanding in their QTS year. For six consecutive years, 0% have been rated unsatisfactory. An assumption that the vast majority of trainees struggle to teach effectively in their first year is wrong.


Lastly on impact, on average 28% of all Teach First ambassadors stay in school as school senior and middle leaders across all cohorts. This shows that Teach First has a higher chance of having a longer-term impact on education, as opposed to shipping in graduates for two years and shipping them out: an increasing number are leading in schools nationally. Teach First-trained Headteachers like Max Haimendorf at King Soloman Academy, Edgeware Road, Ed Vainker at Reach Academy, Feltham and Carley Mitchell at Oasis Academy, Southwark, are leading on tackling the problem of educational inequality.


Of course, Teach First teachers never have been, nor ever will be uncritical of Teach First itself. Some of the most critical and constructive voices on changing and improving Teach First come from the ambassador or alumni community, like the brilliant Laura McInerney, Harry Fletcher-Wood, David Thomas and Kris Boulton. We can increase the 54% staying in teaching. We can increase the 55% who say the Summer Institute prepared them as well as possible to begin teaching. Though there’s no such thing as a silver bullet in education, initial teacher training has huge ripple effects. If we increase the effectiveness of the six-week residential training, we stand to increase retention, and increase our impact on pupils’ aspirations, achievement and access to higher education.


In summary, Teach First recruitment works well, and retention is improving, driven partly by more career changers joining Teach First. Overall, Teach First teachers contribute well to schools, according to headteachers, Ofsted and QTS ratings. Our most important priority should be improving training, which would improve retention and impact. As we speak, this priority is being spearheaded by Teach First ambassadors, such as the forty Teach First teachers who have co-written books on How to Start on Teach First.


So I’ll end on a personal, less data-driven note, with three hopes I have for teacher training. Decades of research from cognitive science shows the vital importance of knowledge, memory and practice for academic achievement. There’s a huge research-practice gap in Initial teacher Training, as this research is not being widely shared and used. I’d like to see model examples of tried-and-tested curricula founded in the principles of cognitive science, such as the Maths sequence being developed at King Soloman Academy, and the humanities sequence developed at Pimlico. And after collating all this data, I’d like to see coherent impact evaluation and transparent public data on Initial teacher Training, so that we could more easily compare routes into teaching. Those are my hopes; I’d be interested to hear your ideas.


‘Working out what works’ is the motto of Research Ed 2013; working out how well Teach First is working is vital if we are to improve its impact on educational inequality in England.

All the slides and sources are attached here: Is Teach First working?

Dr Rebecca Allen will be blogging about her side of the presentation soon.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Is Teach First working?

  1. Pingback: How can we learn if Teach First is working? | Rebecca Allen

  2. Very much enjoyed your informative talk. I would like to know who delivers the phonics component of the Primary course.

  3. neilatkin63 says:

    A couple of years ago I was very sceptical. My views have been changed, not by any data , but my experience of some totally outstanding Teach First teachers who have transformed the lives of their students.

  4. Chris Hall says:

    Really interesting post – rather regretting missing this session now! Two thoughts. First, I think one of the challenges for Teach First (and to be fair, other organisations tackling educational disadvantage) is to be really specific about how they are addressing educational inequality. This is pretty straightforward: they are diverting talented teachers to those schools with high levels of disadvantage therefore tackling some of the structural inequalities in our education system. What they are not doing is breaking the link between social background and attainment. This is not intended as a criticism. I just think that there is a value in being realistic and acknowledging the limits of what they are doing.

    Second, this whole question raises illustrates an interesting dilemma in education policy. It is probably fair to say that so far there is as yet no conclusive evidence that Teach First is working. However, I for one would not suggest for a second that this should mean it should stop expanding. At the risk of demonstrating that I learned nothing from yesterday, sometimes policy needs to precede concrete evidence. All we can do is build on what we do know as we go along – i.e. more applicants per place generally equals better teachers.

  5. Pingback: ResearchED 2013: a Reading List | researchED 2013

  6. P says:

    The aim of TF is stated as ‘to end social disadvantage’. There’s little evidence here that it’s beginning to do that.

    • Rhys Baker says:

      The aim of cancer research uk is to cure cancer.

      Little sight of that either. That means we should stop this silly charity while we can.

      No? We should still work towards that lofty ideal even though it is unlikely we should ever reach it? Of course we should.

      Having a grand aim is fine. TF is making a difference. To lots of kids in lots of schools. To say ‘they haven’t ended social disadvantage’ in just over 10 years is disingenuous, insulting and pathetic. You are asking an oil tanker to turn on a sixpence. Never going to happen. And yet how you steer such a behemoth is with small efforts, hidden from view.

      Don’t cheapen the effort, skill and success of thousands of hard working teachers with your blinkered viewpoint.

      Enrol on the course and interact with TFers before you are so disparaging in your remarks.

  7. Pingback: Teach First – a Failed Programme? | The Wilberforce Society Blog

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  11. mkyl says:

    Do you know where one could find more up to date stats on this subject? Am looking to write a piece about TF’s effect on traditional teacher training and would like to know retention stats for last year….

  12. Pingback: Why I chose Teach First | Primary Teacher Blogging

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