Teach First was set up in 2002 as a charity that placed successful recent graduates into some the UK’s most disadvantaged schools with the aim of challenging educational disadvantage. The charity received government funding as well as support from corporate backers and this summer they start training their eighth cohort of graduates – there are over 600 of them. In less than a decade Teach First has become an important route into teaching but more importantly it has become a vehicle to create thousands of lifelong champions to tackle disadvantage in Britain’s schools.
The establishment of Teach First showed Labour at its best. By sacrificing power and recognising that government is not always best placed to fix problems we were able to create an innovative scheme that now has cross-party support and goes from strength to strength. The clear and successful collaboration between the state, business, and the third sector meant that the political and social aim of creating life chances was best realised.
We can learn from this success when deciding where Labour should go next. The best application of Teach First’s success could be in children’s social care. It is a policy area that Labour neglected in government and the profession has been left as the poor sister of teaching. Compare the support for teachers that sees millions spent on the Training and the Development Agency (TDA) with the lack of infrastructure for social workers. Children’s services were battered by endless news stories of child neglect and instead of supporting the profession we oversaw years of finger pointing. Access to the profession is restrictive with a generic book based course that lasts either two years or four and has few industry connections. There is often a huge turnover of social workers involved with children in care which does little to promote stability in young people’s lives. It remains Labour’s social policy blind spot and we need to think about how we can change this in the future.
The coalition have already made their lack of interest in social and children’s services clear. Downgrading the role of children’s services with the new naming of the department for education, appointing Sarah Teather’s the minister responsible, and utter silence on children’s social care all create the impression that they don’t recognise the importance of social work.
In the late days of the Labour government, following the death of Baby Peter, we did make commitments that could strengthen children’s social care. They included the establishment of a National College for Social Work, strengthening continued professional development, and improving training. We should have done this earlier and it is hoped that the Conservative-Liberal coalition will support it now.
But looking to the future it is clear that we need to do more. Applying the model of Teach First to social work could play a central role in boosting the workforce, raising the esteem of the profession, and ultimately improving protection and promoting the welfare of the most vulnerable people in our society. Creating an attractive graduate scheme offering participants the chance to make a difference training on the job with the option of changing career paths in the future is the right mix of challenge and opportunities that many people look for after university. In particular there is a severe lack of social workers in child protection and a scheme with the Teach First model could help plug this gap. Enthusiastic and with the right attitudes, participants on this scheme could make a huge impact on young people’s lives and in the long term they would be signed up to ending child poverty and creating the best start for young people as ambassadors for the scheme and the wider profession.
There are some obvious challenges with the idea. Unlike in teaching, children often depend on one or two key social workers and this could pose a risk with recent graduates training on the job.There is also a huge responsibility on people involved in high risk social work and in these cases the most capable staff need to be used. Having said this, it would be possible to create a well-run and intense training scheme and it should be remembered that there is a dearth of staff in key areas. The risks associated with this scheme should be taken because the payoff is worth so much – more social workers and greater competition to enter the profession in the long term.
The situation is clear. There are thousands of graduates leaving university every year that want a rewarding challenge where they can make a difference. Social work is under-resourced, under-staffed and needs some of the prestige and pride of the teaching profession. Teach First demonstrates that a dedicated social enterprise can meet its goals better than a government department. One of our key priorities for the future should be that the service that looks out for the most vulnerable in our society has the best people possible. We need to recognise this and regain some of our radical spirit to make it a reality.
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