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INSIDE TRACK: Lessons in what it takes to be a good teacher

There are few things in education of which I'm sure.

One is the improved quality of beginning teachers. When I started more than 40 years ago, we were in an expansionist phase. If you could walk and whistle, not necessarily at the same time, you were in. Fortunately, things have moved on.

Paradoxically, while better recruitment has contributed to increased quality, the status and perception of teaching as a career has declined. For several reasons, our most able graduates might not view teaching as an attractive career.

In England, Teach First aims to recruit high-flying graduates for struggling schools. What's in it for the graduates? They are placed in schools after a mere six weeks' induction, thus avoiding a year-long course of postgraduate training. They are at the sharp end from day one. Six young graduates, spread over three London schools, were the subjects of the BBC 3 documentary Tough Young Teachers. One might justifiably ask why they have put themselves under additional pressure. Television is rarely interested in the normal and focuses on the crises that can face the rookie teacher. When I was a headteacher a TV company wanted to do a fly-on-the wall series. I gave it five seconds' thought before deciding it was something we could live without.

The six young teachers were all bright, committed and idealistic. But the fallacy of Teach First is the assumption of an inevitable correlation between being an academic high flyer and a top-class teacher. A couple of the weakest teachers I have worked with had first-class honours degrees. The best degrees are not necessarily reliable predictors of teaching ability.

Nevertheless, the programme threw up some surprises. The state- educated teacher, who superficially, seemed the best bet to succeed, was out of her depth. The Harrow-educated maths teacher took to it like a duck to water. The main lesson is the ill-conceived nature of Teach First. The teachers were not ready for the challenges they faced. They were drowning, not waving. I almost shouted at the television as one made a series of easily avoided mistakes.

She was late for her first lesson and forgot to bring the books needed. We all make mistakes, but these youngsters made them in situations in which they were solely responsible for pupils' learning. Most arrived in school around 7.30am and were still there 13 hours later. They had little time to think and reflect. In the absence of anything else, they formed their own self-support group.

It will be surprising if many are still teaching in four or five years. They and their pupils will be the collateral damage of another short-term and ill-conceived gimmick. Teach First is based on the false premise that teaching skills can be absorbed like an educational nicotine patch.

It is essential that beginning teachers have time to think and reflect on the basics of teaching. They need time and security to develop essential professional skills and confidence, best achieved through the shared and balanced roles and responsibilities of schools and universities. Teach First graduates are being taught a hard lesson. They are likely to learn that teaching is not for them.

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Education

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