Help us help you and them

University support for the Teach First scheme will benefit everyone involved in education, asserts James Darley

February 4, 2010

Teach First will be the fourth-largest graduate recruiter this year, trailing only PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte and the Army.

The graduates we recruit will all respond to our mission to address educational disadvantage by committing to teaching in schools for a minimum of two years.

We are making a significant contribution to the national problem of inequality in education by putting our best graduates - more than 2,000 so far - into schools where they can raise the access, aspiration and achievement of thousands of pupils. High-quality teaching makes a difference: research shows a clear distinction between the impact of a high-performing and a low-performing teacher on a child's attainment.

But despite our efforts, thousands of economically disadvantaged young people will never reach the lecture theatres. Nearly 50 per cent of children claiming free school meals get no passes above grade D at GCSE level. Aspiration is also a problem - a distressing observation made by our teachers is that many pupils achieve the grades to enter the best institutions but do not apply. When income has such an explicit effect on a child's achievement and the decisions he or she makes, widening participation initiatives face an uphill struggle at even the best-intentioned university.

Some universities have already connected with Teach First on access. Our Higher Education Access Programme for Schools harnesses the expertise of Teach First Ambassadors (alumni) to support gifted pupils through the university application process. The results are outstanding - more than 80 per cent say they would not have applied to a leading institution without this additional support. Continued collaboration with universities is vital - we can work together on curriculum development to ensure that more teachers know what qualities universities look for in their undergraduates, and to organise visits for young people who may never have seen a university campus before.

Yet most pressing is the need to mobilise as many graduates as possible to join Teach First in the first place. This would mean more graduates helping children in challenging schools to compete for higher education places, and an ever larger network of tomorrow's leaders engaged with the realities of educational disadvantage. Although not all our alumni choose to continue teaching long term, 70 per cent do continue to engage in our work.

In our five regions, we could place teachers in three times the number of schools we currently work with. We believe we should work tirelessly to do so. But this means resolving the supply issue. We cannot inspire ever more top talent to "teach first" without the explicit support of vice-chancellors.

Don't get me wrong. Careers advisory services across our target universities - currently 37 - are supportive. However, for us to become "the career proposition for all top graduates", we need the support of the institutions themselves. Teach First should be a central part of universities' widening participation strategies - more teachers would increase the diversity of the next generation of undergraduates.

So what can universities do? Finance is critical. Despite our growing size and reputation, our marketing budget is far less than that of our main competitors. According to the Association of Graduate Recruiters, the average marketing spend per vacancy is about £2,500. Teach First has only £700. Yet we remain subject to the same charges if we wish to attend a careers fair or hire a room. Is it fair to expect charities to pay full whack when the vast majority of other recruiters are large profit-making organisations?

There is also the challenge of embedding ourselves into the mindset of students. Universities can help to entrench the idea of teaching in a challenging school as a worthwhile career choice. We stress the transferable skills gained - this could be reinforced by involving Teach First in the delivery of employability sessions for students. Some institutions provide bursaries to students who join us, which goes some way towards addressing the problem of our low starting salary - £10,000 below the graduate average.

Just imagine if "teaching first" was the norm for all the best students. I would be delighted to see some of the UK's top universities join our list of more than 50 supporter organisations. It is time we worked together with university heads to raise the profile of educational disadvantage in the minds of those who have been able to access the incredible universities that they represent.

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