A fast-track First for knowledge
Christopher Middleton on the rise of the young business-class teacher
It’s Thursday afternoon and getting dark, but while the rest of the pupils at Wembley High Technology College are going home, Melissa Parsey’s Year Seven charges have volunteered for an extra Religious Studies lesson.
After a few minutes, you can see why. Instead of sitting with her feet up and getting the children to read from Leviticus, Parsey has prepared a lively lesson about the conversion to Christianity of a real-life Puerto Rican gangster.
The lesson’s a triumph, not least when you consider that Parsey is only 22, barely two years out of a theology and philosophy degree at Durham University and holding her own in an inner-city London comprehensive where 60 per cent of the children don’t speak English at home.
There are 17 other teachers like her at Wembley (a quarter of the common room): all high-flying graduates who are members of Teach First, a radical new programme that takes the cream of each year’s university crop and puts them not into business or banking, but teaching at some of Britain’s most difficult schools.
Last year, Teach First hired 280 young recruits; this September, there will be 350 newcomers, fortified by just six weeks’ intensive training and a salary starting at around £16,000 (more in London).
“My parents were horrified when I told them I was going into teaching,” Parsey says, with a laugh. “My mother thought I was far too much of a princess for this kind of work.”
There’s no place for tiaras at a tough school, but the influx of motivated, fast-track teachers seems to have worked wonders. Since the Teach First cavalry came over the hill in 2004, the number of pupils getting five A, B or C grades at GCSE has gone up from 40 per cent to 84 per cent — with top marks all round from Ofsted, too.
“Trainees were highly committed to Teach First’s aim of countering educational disadvantage and had a markedly beneficial impact on the schools involved,” concluded Ofsted inspectors in January, after visiting more than 20 Teach First schools. “Their placement as groups of trainees enhanced this impact.”
The Teach First trainees’ work is underpinned by more than idealism. As well as becoming qualified teachers after a year, they are allocated professional “mentors” to help them with career development and they get the chance to hear and meet high-powered speakers from the powerful international companies that help to fund Teach First.
The recruits only have to commit themselves to teach for two years, after which they’re free to leave, in many cases to join companies at a higher level than contemporaries who go into a business straight from university. Parsey, for example, will start working this summer with the international advertising agency WPP, partly in New York and Shanghai: “After two years of teaching, I was a much stronger candidate for the job than I would have been before.
The same goes for Teach First contemporary Sam Watson-Jones, 23, who teaches English at Wembley High. “You learn so many skills as a teacher,” says the Newcastle University graduate. “How to manage your time, make decisions on the spot and to deal with 10 different things and people at the same time.”
He is also leaving teaching (for the City) at the end of two years, although, like Parsey, he does not rule out returning. There are no hard feelings on Teach First’s behalf. “If they say ‘I’ve done my bit for society, now I’m going to treble my salary,’ that’s fine,” says external relations director Suzi Clark. “The way we see it, we’re helping to create future business and government leaders who will never forget their two years of teaching or lose sight of a mission to help disadvantaged students. We view ourselves not just as an organisation, but as a movement.”
Teach First, 14 Heron Quay, London E14, (0844 880 1800, www.teachfirst.org.uk)