Forget the BRICs, focus on the RICs

Something I wrote for TF magazine back in the spring..

Jim O’Neill – former Goldman Sachs Economist and loyal Teach First supporter – coined the term ‘BRICs’: the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China which continue to challenge the established economies of The West.  In education it’s time to focus on the RICs – rural, isolated and coastal schools which remain untouched by improvements seen in urban settings.  A fresh recruitment drive, focusing on Teach First ambassadors, could help bridge the gap between our urban centres and the RICs.

One of the successes of Teach First was that it tapped into a latent appetite amongst university leavers to make a positive social difference.  Before Teach First, top graduates could have chosen teaching, but Teach First successfully packaged urban teaching as a prestigious pathway for these ambitious university leavers.  Sure enough, education in many of our urban centres has been transformed.  In London, Teach First was one element in a perfect storm of interventions which have brought about possibly the greatest turnaround in the history of public education.

Yet the picture remains dismal in many English regions.  In towns such as Bradford, Blackpool, Nottingham, Hull and Wolverhampton, fewer than 50% of students gained 5A*-C grades last year including English and maths.  In my home town of Southampton – just over an hour from London and blessed with a Russell Group university and a decent local economy – the figure was just 51%.  A short ferry ride away, the beautiful Isle of Wight has been described as one of the worst places to go to school in England (e.g. HERE).

Replicating success from one context to another is a complex task.  Whether it’s in Brixton or Bognor, there are countless reasons why a school might be struggling to fulfil its potential.  But one point we can all agree on is that schools can only be as good as their teachers and leaders, so if we want rural, isolated and coastal schools to flourish we must fill them with the best people, and here’s where we turn our attention to an untapped pool of teachers: Teach First ambassadors.

The magnetic appeal of London for university leavers requires little explanation, but once teachers have spent 5 or 10 years in London, their priorities can change.  They might want a house with a garden, access to the countryside or coast, a garage for their bikes, a 10-minute drive to work rather than an hour long rush hour commute.  But these teachers don’t want to lose the social purpose that attracted them to teaching in the first place.  They want to work hard and to make a difference for young people and they want to be developed and challenged as school leaders.    There is a gap in the market for a new programme to bring together these talented teachers and the schools beyond the capital who need them.  It can do this in two ways.

First and foremost, this new initiative will be a matchmaking programme, seeking and selecting suitable candidates and linking these with schools looking for an injection of talent.  This will involve showing teachers how far their money will go if they work at a school in Bradford and buy a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales, or work at a school in Suffolk and rent an apartment with a sea view on the ‘sunrise coast’.  The teachers will be expected to make a commitment of at least two years to their new school, and the school will be expected to support the teachers’ leadership development.

The second element of the programme will involve high quality professional development, starting with a summer programme and continuing throughout the two years.  This will enable our teachers to stay connected with each other, avoiding the sense of isolation that can beset teachers in rural and coastal schools.  Mentoring from successful school leaders will also sweeten the pill, as will research opportunities and the chance to establish networks with local businesses.  With support from local authorities, these teachers could work between schools, or could bridge the gap between schools and other public services, such as mental health, early years provision and social services.

Let’s go back to what Teach First did so brilliantly when it launched in 2003.  It didn’t create jobs which weren’t there before; Teach First repackaged an existing job – working in a tough school – into an attractive proposition.  Now we must do the same for established teachers who might love making a difference in rural, isolated and coastal schools, even if they don’t know it yet.

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