What Teach First can teach us

By Eibhlin Ni Ogain 30 November 2010

Last week, I attended a very interesting presentation—a discussion of findings from an independent evaluation of the charity, Teach First. Teach First is a charity whose aim is to address educational disadvantage by transforming exceptional graduates into effective, inspirational teachers and leaders in all fields.

The research, carried out over three years, looked at whether Teach First was achieving this goal. It was measured by looking at whether their teachers were effective and whether pupils’ outcomes were altered as a result.

The findings were notable for a number of reasons. Firstly, the research actually found statistically significant results, which as Professor Muijs who co-authored the report told us, is very rare in the field of educational research. It is even rarer to find in the charity sector. As discussed by my colleague Sarah Keen, in an earlier blog, it is very hard to find empirical research in the charity sector that actually attempts something as sophisticated as a regression, for example.

The second reason why the research is notable is that it highlights the role charities play in bringing innovative solutions to the most complex of social problems. The research was able to show that the idea behind Teach First does seem to work. The graduate teachers were found to be either as effective or more effective than more experienced teachers. The factors leading them to be effective were found to be a combination of enthusiasm, strong leadership and a belief that they could positively impact on their pupils’ outcomes. The research also found a correlation between Teach First schools and improved GCSE results. While correlation does not amount to causation, and I would have liked more detail on this aspect of the report and more probing of students’ individual journeys, this finding is a good start.

Understanding what makes teachers effective is a key question in understanding what improves outcomes for pupils. This report highlights the role charities play in pioneering new approaches that can turn out to be more effective than traditional methods. As another colleague, Esther Paterson, wrote last week, charities need a significant amount of creativity when it comes to thinking of new ways to tackle the most deeply entrenched issues in our society.

The work of Teach First is incredibly relevant right now with the government unveiling new plans last Wednesday to tackle declining school standards. This plan will seek to give more freedom and authority to teachers, as well as encouraging high achieving graduates into the profession. Even more interesting, a report published yesterday by the consulting firm, McKinsey, discusses how countries with the best faring students tend to have teachers who are enthusiastic and well-educated, which emulates the findings of this Teach First research.

Unfortunately, most charities have yet to carry out well-controlled research that captures the impact they are having. Charities, as a result, are losing out, through being unable to show that their innovations are effective. This is why evaluations like the one discussed are so important. They show that charities can be innovative in fields where it is needed most. In turn, this demonstrates just how important and valuable the sector is at a grass-root, as well as a wider policy level.