THE BLOG

Tough Young Teachers: Did I Miss the Comma?

16/01/2014 13:25 GMT | Updated 17/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Even the most liberal of my acquaintances might be shunted into what one calls "Daily Mail mode" by some moments in Tough Young Teachers. This series, which began on BBC3 last week, follows six young teachers as they begin their careers in some of the country's most challenging classrooms. All six are participants in the Teach First scheme so adored by both Labour and Coalition Governments. And there were moments when, as other commentators have written, the blood slightly boiled.

That said, many of these moments - rude students, bad language, long days - will be familiar to anyone involved in education. There doesn't seem to be any misapprehension, on the part of the six teachers in question, that the job was going to be tough: rather, there's a strong desire to work in challenging circumstances because that, as one of them points out, is where the effort is needed most.

This spirit is, for me, one of the best things about Teach First. A few years back, the Good Teacher Training Guide pointed out that 53% of Oxbridge graduate teachers were working in 7% of schools - the independent sector. Not that Oxbridge degrees are the be all and end all in teaching skill (quite the reverse) but it's a staggering statistic - and one which Teach First has made great strides in shifting. This year, the scheme was the first choice destination for graduates of Oxford University, and it has brought many, many bright and engaging young teachers to the classroom where, previously, they would have headed straight for the nearest management consultancy. This can, surely, only be a good thing.

This aside, though, I've always had big problems with Teach First, and the first episode of Tough Young Teachers reminded me why. My problem with it began as instinct, but over the years it has been supported both by testimony of friends on the programme, and by emerging evidence. Here's the rub: you cannot simply throw young people, however brilliant, into a classroom without any real preparation. You would not throw them into an operating theatre, or a warship, or a fire station, without some serious practical training. Why should education - the so-called cure to all of society's ills, the oft-rhetoric'd precious development of our future - be different?

One of the six participants - arguably one of the better teachers, though time will tell - sums it up when she says, after a tricky Year 8 class, "I don't know what I'm doing." How can a so-called teacher training programme allow this to be the case? That's not saying that learning on the job isn't important - we all do it, teachers and everyone else. But some of the rudiments of classroom management, of preparation, of how to interact with parents and young people, of how to plan an engaging lesson, have apparently not even been touched upon. The young teachers do not, to me, look supported, or trained. They largely look terrified - as would I be in their shoes.

The evidence - much of it summarised by a 2012 Commons Education Committee inquiry on which I was privileged to work - is clear that substantial teacher training (including, critically, CPD) is immensely valuable. Whilst I fully acknowledge that many Teach Firsters (Teachers First?) wouldn't sign up for a conventional PGCE route, and whilst I equally acknowledge the many efforts being made by Government to provide more (and more flexible) routes into teaching, it astounds me that this lack of training passes muster.

My second overpowering impression from the first episode was of how catastrophically wrong the decision to cancel Building Schools for the Future was. I know that for many this is old news, but the condition of one of the featured schools, in particular, simply beggars belief. The evidence is, supposedly, thin on the impact of environment on learning; anyone involved in education knows this to be complete nonsense. Every day, on my way home, I walk past a sign outside my local secondary school which tells the true story - of the pride and standards raised by BSF money just before the Government cancelled the programme. It has transformed that school, and it should have been allowed to continue transforming others. Poor administration and high costs do not mean you close a programme down - they mean you make improvements. Gove's black and white response to BSF, along with other of the last government's plans, insults his own intelligence.

I'm not a teacher - my job in education falls into that neat, grey and less-student-facing area of 'management' - but I come from a family of teachers and work with teachers every day. Better and more important folk than me have said what a noble, brilliant, inspiring profession it is, and it's fantastic that bright young people want to join that profession - through Teach First or other routes. But the abiding impression for me, of the first Tough Young Teachers episode, was quite frankly that they'd forgotten the comma after 'tough'. Until we support our teachers better - through improved career structures, entitlements to CPD, better facilities, and improved training - we cannot expect their morale or their recruitment to leap and bound. And reforms to Teach First should be the beginning of that process, unless we think it's right for new teachers to be saying they haven't got a clue what they're doing after each lesson. That said (and well-trodden fears about TV education aside), I can't wait for the next episode - and hats off to the teachers and schools involved.