Teach First prospect sparks debate in Scotland

Written by: Sam Phipps | Published:
Image: iStock

The prospect of fast-tracked Teach First graduates being used to tackle recruitment problems has stirred debate across Scottish education. Sam Phipps explains

The prospect of Scotland tackling its recruitment crisis with the help of fast track graduates from the Teach First programme seems to have been welcomed by few outside the Scottish Conservatives.

Teaching unions and other opposition parties have all voiced their objections to the idea, which came to light after it emerged that first minister Nicola Sturgeon met directors of the charity last year to discuss how they might bring their programme north of the border.

The Scottish government’s refusal to disclose the extent of lobbying by Prince Charles, a patron of Teach First, has added to the controversy. So has the revelation that Teach First asked Holyrood to delay the implementation of a pilot by one year so that it would be able to tailor a more suitable scheme if and when it wins a government tender.

No-one denies the shortage of teachers, particularly in rural areas and in STEM and computing subjects. Over the last decade Scotland has swung from oversupply to undersupply in classrooms, after the SNP cut training places by 40 per cent between 2009/10 and 2010/11. Education secretary John Swinney – who was finance minister at the time – has himself admitted this was an “overcorrection”.

The question is whether Teach First, or similar programmes, are the right way to go about filling vacancies or a potentially divisive short-term fix for a problem that many argue is at least partly of the SNP’s own making.

However, the Scottish government has said it will put a new fast track teacher training course out to tender and Teach First has said it is likely to be among the bidders.

Teach First, founded in 2002, has recruited more than 10,000 teachers for state schools and academies in England, where it earns £2,600 per trainee.

In Scotland, the organisation is considering offering a two-year postgraduate course aimed specifically at shortages in STEM and rural areas, according to documents released under freedom of information. These also show Mr Swinney has had subsequent meetings with Teach First.

At the moment Scottish teachers have to complete a year at university followed by a probationer year at a school. Any organisation that wins the contract will have to partner with a university to ensure high standards, the government has said. However, it is likely that teachers would be working in the classroom after just five weeks’ summer school, which the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) might not agree to sign off.

A spokesperson said: “GTCS has had discussions with Teach First on a few occasions over the years and, as the cabinet secretary John Swinney has stated publicly, the principle of meeting the GTCS Standards for Registration before becoming a teacher will continue in Scotland.

“However, should an individual complete the Teach First programme in England or Wales gaining the appropriate qualifications, including a formal teaching qualification, for registration in Scotland they can apply to GTCS to become a teacher here.

“It is important to note that we are also working with universities to offer a range of more flexible entry options to teaching and this work will continue. Being properly qualified to teach in Scotland, and meeting the GTCS Standards for full registration will remain the benchmark for aspiring teachers.”

As for the number of teachers who have completed Teach First in England or Wales and then gone on to register in Scotland, the GTCS has no data, she added.

Ms Sturgeon said she would “draw heavily” on the London Challenge, of which Teach First was one element, when she visited the programme in the capital in 2015. The scheme is said to have improved performance of many pupils in deprived parts of the city.

Her government, which says its priority is to narrow the attainment gap between wealthier and poorer pupils, has been planning to issue the tender late in August with pilots running one year from now.

However, Teach First wanted to stop the tendering process and enter a partnership with the Scottish government, with a pilot starting in 2019.

A letter from James Westwood, executive director of Teach First, to deputy first minister Mr Swinney, dated May 9, states: “I am writing to ask whether you might consider an alternative arrangement to this process and consider the timing of such a roll-out, in order to deliver a programme that is more likely to meet your policy objectives. Our view is that we should now be aiming towards a programme which trains recruits in summer 2019, starting teaching in schools in August 2019.”

The letter says the extra time was required to ensure the programme could attract “additional high calibre leaders” rather than duplicate existing provision.

Mr Westwood added: “We are very keen to work with your government to deliver this programme but are concerned about our ability to bid or deliver if the process is for a tender issued in the coming months with a programme starting in 2018.

“In the instances where a sufficient timeline has not been available in other countries we have taken the decision not to bid because we did not feel we could guarantee quality.”

Where rushed timelines have occurred the outcomes have been below the standards expected, he wrote. “We are concerned this scenario may now be approaching.”

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), said the letter was “deeply worrying”.

“It seems to suggest a negotiation and an on-going relationship between the Scottish government and Teach First rather than an open tendering process,” he said.

Reuben Moore, Teach First director of leadership, has since said the organisation believes the tender process does give adequate time. Another spokesperson from the organisation said: “We know from current research that there is a significant gap between the attainment of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and their wealthier peers in Scotland.

“We welcome efforts by the Scottish government and others to find innovative ways to improve educational outcomes which are bespoke to Scotland and we look forward to seeing the details of the forthcoming tender.”

A Scottish government spokesman said: “We are currently finalising the tender specification for this new route into teaching and will shortly begin accepting bids for the contract.”

He expected “a number of parties” to be interested in bringing forward proposals. “Our timescale for pilots to begin no later than August 2018 is entirely realistic and remains unchanged.”

However, the Scottish government has refused to release letters that allegedly show the Prince of Wales lobbying on behalf of Teach First, of which he is patron. The organisation has declined to detail the extent of his activity on its behalf and Scottish ministers have turned down three requests to publish letters and documents showing him backing its expansion plans.

Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, said he would be pressing for a Parliamentary debate on the disclosures.

“This kind of policy-making under pressure of lobbying, in secret, is no way to embark on ditching a fundamental principle of Scottish education that we only use fully qualified teachers in our schools,” he said.

His comments reflect widespread unease that any fast track teacher scheme could create mutual mistrust in the staffroom, with trainees being paid under one system and not another. There is also no pay scale for unqualified members of staff.

And how will cash-strapped schools manage to give the intensive support and leadership opportunities required under Teach First?

There is also the issue of whether it is politically wise to use Teach First if it undermines the longstanding high-quality university route with no guarantee that it will provide a long-term answer to filling vacancies.

Liz Smith, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservatives, sees it another way: “People will be baffled as to why it has taken so long for the SNP to accept the merits of this type of initiative given its success elsewhere.”

  • Sam Phipps is a freelance journalist specialising in education


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