Learning curve

Teach First offers graduates the chance to become a teacher – but keep a foot in the door of a top business or law firm from the start. Jennifer Farrar and Bethan Hempstead report

Like lots of university graduates, Laura Evans has always been attracted to teaching as a career because, as cliched as it sounds, it is a job that allows you to make a real difference to people’s lives and lets you put something back into the community.

But committing long-term to a career where you are often undervalued, underpaid and overworked makes lots of graduates think twice about spending the rest of their lives in the classroom. As a result, many of the brightest brains end up in business and the teaching profession misses out.

Now a scheme has been launched to tap into the emotions and enthusiasm of people such as Evans, a recent law graduate from Exeter University. Teach First is a fast-track training scheme with lofty ambitions that gives top graduates the chance to spend the first two years of their professional careers as teachers in challenging inner-city schools, before allowing them to launch careers in other professions if they wish, with no strings attached.

From September, with only six weeks of initial teacher training under their belts, a group of 189 graduates will be set to work across a range of London comprehensives, earning approximately 17,000 for their first year.

Evans, who is teaching English at St Marylebone’s Church of England School in Westminster from September, admits that the prospect is a little nerve-wracking.

“After only a summer of intensive training, I’ll be facing a classroom full of underachieving teenagers. It’s a daunting, but a very challenging, prospect,” she states diplomatically. “I knew that, unlike most graduate jobs, I’d be given a lot of responsibility very early on. To be honest, I’m absolutely petrified, but I’m very excited about it too. This might sound cheesy, but it’s my biggest challenge yet.”

How to attract the brightest and best into teaching is a task that has been baffling the Teacher Training Agency for a long time. Yet the people behind Teach First think they have come up with a solution. No less than 70 big business names have come on board as sponsors of the scheme, including three magic circle law firms – Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

Perhaps one of the biggest perks for graduates is the fact that Teach First participants can seek out internships with sponsors during the school summer holidays and also have the chance to study for a mini-MBA during term-time. An ongoing programme

of in-school business support and mentoring will also give the Teach First candidates unrivalled opportunities to build up a network of useful contacts. This network, of course, will come in very handy should they decide to ditch teaching in favour of the law, for example, once their two-year stint in the classroom is over.

A spokeswoman for Teach First says that, although sponsors cannot guarantee internships, all of them have pledged to “look favourably” upon Teach First graduates if their CVs turn up further down the track.

“The skills that they’ll have learnt in the classroom, such as presentation and crisis management, will give them more confidence,” says the spokeswoman, adding that such attributes will make them more attractive to employers.

Aside from the opportunity to “influence young people’s lives at a fundamental time in their development”, Evans says one of the main attractions of Teach First is that it allows her to keep her options open.

“At the end of my two years I can review my career choice again, so I’m opening doors rather than closing them,” says Evans. “I hope that the next two years will equip me with all the skills necessary to impress an employer… and I hope to make contacts that will benefit me in the future. The next two years should make me a strong leader and will give me a chance to give something back to the community.”

While it is clear what the Teach First graduates will get out of the scheme, what is in it for the law firm sponsors?

Hugh Crisp, the partner in charge of graduate recruitment at Freshfields, says his firm is so impressed by Teach First that it is doing some free legal aid work for the scheme and will even be hosting a reception later this year.

“It’s a great chance for people to go off and do something different before they get into the world of business,” says Crisp. “Teach First is good for us because it adds something else to the mix of people who join us.”

Julia Clarke, the partner in charge of graduate recruitment at Clifford Chance, agrees that participating in the scheme will look good on a graduate’s CV.

“Of course, we’d still be looking for all the things we always look for when we’re recruiting trainees,” she states. “But it’s clear that these people are motivated to make a difference.”

Applicants must have an EU work permit and an expected 2:1 or above from a top 20 UK university (“or an exceptional application from elsewhere”), so it is clear that the scheme is really out to recruit the highest of high-fliers. And even though the scheme has not been properly road-tested, Teach First was still ranked 63rd in a recent poll of the Top 100 Graduate Employers by The Times.

Of course, it is entirely possible that Teach First could be a dismal failure and participants could find that, despite their noble intentions, they are simply not up to the job. And what about the pupils? Will they suffer because their inspirational teachers only stick around for two years before heading off to industry?

The Teach First formula has already been put to the test in the US, where the programme is known as Teach for America, and has proved that the idea can succeed. Now in operation across 524 urban and rural schools, the scheme has had an impact on more than 1.25 million school pupils. A survey in 2001 revealed that three-quarters of school leaders thought Teach for America teachers were better than other new teachers, while 92 per cent believed that Teach for America had a positive impact.

“I like the fact that once I’ve become a newly-qualified teacher, I can return to it at any point,” says Evans, who feels that a career in the legal profession is “definitely still a possibility” and plans to make full use of her new contact network.

“I think that you have to love teaching to stay in it,” she adds. “If I love it, then I’ll definitely stay in teaching, particularly because it’s a good career to have if you want a family. And I’m definitely attracted by the six weeks off every summer.”