Education Review asks Teach First NZ’s chief executive SHAUN SUTTON about the origins of Teach First NZ, its influence on New Zealand’s models of initial teacher education, the recent controversy around teacher recruitment processes and the impact it is having on students at low decile schools.
A: Shaun Sutton: Teach First NZ was set up in response to the fact the education is New Zealand isn’t fair. Still today, a child’s postcode is one of the greatest determinants of their educational success. Teach First NZ is a growing movement of people who are truly committed to changing that.
Q: Your involvement with Teach First began as a participant in the programme in the UK. Can you share your experience with the programme in London?
A: Having worked previously in a graduate role in business, joining the Teach First programme in the UK truly changed my life. I had considered entering teaching as I went through university, but for a number of reasons wasn’t attracted to the traditional models of initial teacher education. I heard about Teach First when I was living in the UK, and I was instantly attracted to the clear mission of making a difference. The key factors that encouraged me to apply were how competitive it is to get a place, the real challenge the programme offers, and the true practice-based nature of the training.
A: In the UK, I witnessed first-hand the incredible influence that great teachers have in positively affecting disadvantaged young people – and in London, Teach First has been attributed as being one out of four factors that have completely turned around London’s education system. I thought to myself “why don’t we have something like this in New Zealand?”, and that is when the Teach First NZ seed was planted.
A: While traditional teacher education models were well established, there was a fair degree of honesty in the sector that the traditional models weren’t in general attracting the ‘best and brightest’. Our country’s top graduates were increasingly being snapped up by corporates and other professions regarded as more prestigious. There were very few people who were reluctant to admit that the system needed some innovation.
Q: What is your response to critics of Teach First who are sceptical of its ‘fast-track’ approach to teacher education?
A: Evidence suggests the best school systems globally have multiple pathways into the teaching profession, and feedback from schools and the independent NZCER evaluation reports has been overwhelmingly positive about the Teach First NZ model. Our selection process ensures only people who are ready to teach relatively early – closely supported by ongoing mentoring – are offered a place on the programme. The high challenge of the programme means it’s by no means a programme suited to anybody.
Q: Why the University of Auckland? Are there any plans to extend Teach First NZ to work with other New Zealand universities?
A: We partnered with the University of Auckland for two reasons – firstly because of its high credibility as an education institution with strong initial teacher education expertise, and secondly for geographic reasons (i.e. being located in the area with the highest density of low-decile secondary schools). In response to demand from schools, we are currently in discussions with other universities about extending the Teach First NZ programme to other parts of the country.
Q: Why only low-decile secondary schools? Why do socioeconomics play such an important role in where Teach First NZ participants end up teaching? Why not primary?
A: There is a sad correlation in New Zealand between socioeconomics and educational outcomes – but it shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be this way. Teach First NZ has been setup to tackle part of what is a complex problem – we’re not THE answer, but we do know the critical importance of getting more great people to become teachers in low-decile schools, and of the need to challenge the unhelpful stereotypes of these schools. We started at secondary level because of the very strong demand from that sector for more subject specialist teachers, but are always considering new ways to increase our impact.
Q: The school decile funding system is under review at the moment; will any resulting changes have implications for Teach First NZ?
A: We are monitoring the progress of the review closely, and look forward to continuing to serve schools serving low-income communities, and schools with high Māori and Pasifika rolls.
Q: Teach First NZ participants commit to two years’ teaching. What typically happens beyond these two years? Can you tell us about the alumni programme?
A: There is no expectation for our alumni to remain in teaching beyond the initial two years – but through our alumni programme we do aim to support all alumni to remain engaged in working towards closing the education gap in New Zealand. That could be through classroom teaching, school leadership roles, and roles in wider education, research, policy or even business. So far, 88 per cent of our first two intakes have remained in teaching, mostly in low decile schools and many with some kind of leadership responsibility.
Q: The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) ruled in December 2015 that Teach First NZ participants were being illegally appointed to teaching positions. Can you shed some light on this matter?
A: The ruling from the ERA was a signal to the sector that, under current legislation, the job appointment process of employment-based initial teacher education programmes, such as Teach First NZ, was not able to be conducted as originally intended.
Q: Following from the ERA ruling, Teach First NZ, The University of Auckland, the PPTA and the Ministry of Education have reached agreement on employment processes for Teach First NZ participants. Can you explain what this agreement entails and what impact it will have on graduates of the programme?
A: The agreement we reached was that Teach First NZ participants who have been selected for the programme will apply for Gazette-advertised jobs in schools, alongside other applicants in an ‘open market’. We are also keeping a close eye on the legislation currently passing through Parliament that would, if passed, create a new official ‘trainee teacher’ category of teacher.
Q: Following that agreement, the Ministry has since proposed a legislation change that could see jobs reserved for trainee teachers, much to the PPTA’s concern. Given that agreement had been reached, do you think the Ministry’s proposed legislation change is necessary?
A: While we are continuing to honour the agreement with the PPTA, we would additionally welcome any clarification about the legal status of employment-based initial teacher education programmes. Since the ERA ruling, there has been a degree of uncertainty for our partner schools and Teach First NZ participants, and we would welcome any move to formally clarify the rules and regulations related to their appointment and employment. If any such legislation were to pass, we plan to get back around the table with the PPTA, look at what the legislation says, and figure out together a way forward that will address any remaining concerns.
Q: Presumably high-achieving graduates in other areas typically don’t initially have their sights set on teaching (otherwise they would have likely studied teacher education). What do you think draws these graduates to teaching?
A: More than half of Teach First NZ participants have said they wouldn’t have considered entering teaching through other more traditional pathways. Many of our participants tell us that the clearly articulated Teach First NZ vision grabs their interest from the outset, and they are also attracted by the practicalities of the programme (high challenge, intensive training, in-school support, leadership development), and that it is a scholarship/bonded programme.
Q: I understand the Teach First NZ programme is very competitive with only around seven per cent of applicants accepted. Why is the bar set so high for entry into the programme? Are there plans to expand the number of places?
A: The bar is high because the programme is very tough! We make no apologies for selecting only the best and the brightest, particularly because the programme is employment-based and our participants are acting as teacher of record in their schools. The Teach First NZ programme is driven by school demand, which continues to be strong, and as such we are currently evaluating options to increase the impact of the programme through expanding the number of places.
Q: How closely is the Teach First NZ programme aligned with other Teach First programmes around the world? Is there much collaboration between countries?
A: All Teach First programmes globally are independently managed, governed, and financed, but we are aligned in some ways with Teach First in the UK and Teach For Australia. Teach First programmes around the world share with each other our research findings and best practice through the global Teach For All network, and we were fortunate to have the opportunity to host the annual Teach For All Global Conference last year in Auckland.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you face leading Teach First NZ?
A: Our biggest challenge is how to position the programme to enable more top graduates to apply to join. We know that Teach First NZ offers incredible training and leadership development to those lucky enough to secure a place, but marketing this to a fluid pool of graduates who have many other opportunities is challenging, particularly in an environment where teaching has a relatively low status.
Q: What is your overarching vision for the organisation?
A: If we are truly going to help ‘move the needle’ of education success in New Zealand, our growing community of partner schools, universities, participants, alumni, policy makers, and even actors from other sectors such as business, need to come together united in will and desire to work to make teaching, particularly teaching in low decile schools, a top graduate choice for our best and brightest.