This well-structured conference was once again inspiring and thought-provoking but the event exposed the tension between disruption and collaboration that has hampered the achievement of Teach First’s bold vision from the get go; the new CEO made his ambition to make Teach First an effective campaigning force clear but the pathway to that goal is anything but.
Half way through the afternoon session in a pink and blue Wembley arena the crowd finally had enough. The warm-mannered gathering of educators had been politely listening for nearly three solid hours before turning into a chorus of boos. The opening session was an emotional swan song for the departing CEO, Brett Wigdortz, and there was not a dry eye in the house during Merrill Academy choir’s “I believe I can fly”, which prompted the Teach First ambassadors and participants to take out their phones and create a waving sea of lights for the teenagers from Derby. What, then, happened a few hours later to turn the crowd and provoke calls of “get off the stage” and “turn off that mic” from across Wembley arena?
Sadly, not the Tory Secretary of State for Education failing to give an authentic answer to the question of school funding.
The moment was, in fact, Toby Young bravely claiming, in a room predominantly full of women, who were in the process of watching (for many of them) their feminist hero Laura Bates, that “there was little evidence that unconscious bias was holding women back.” He cited the lack of attainment gap at secondary schools and university entrance rates as apparent evidence for this. He was subsequently schooled by Laura Bates on the systematic nature of gender bias, violence and consequent inequality; and she rightly mocked his attempt to “cherry pick one statistic” to prove his point. Young attempted a clarification via a lengthy explanation of a study he read one time about unconscious bias. This proved to be the debating equivalent of a goalkeeper delicately escorting a leaf off the pitch to find that the opponent has smashed a hat trick in the back of the net in the mean time. I’m sure Young will claim either that he should be credited for injecting energy into the room or that the nuance of his point was missed. It was so badly judged that some were wondered if this was an attempt to “troll”. It seemed an odd strategy for the new Director of the New Schools Network, who began his contribution by appealing to the thousands of engaged professionals in the room to collaborate with his organisation. Enraging your audience is a certainly a novel PR strategy. Still, Bates’ stature as a precise and devastating public speaker will hardly have been hurt.
The crowd, many of whom will have been appalled by the scale of the recent Weinstein scandal and subsequently empowered and awakened by the #MeToo campaign, loved every word of Bates’ contributions. As an observer, although in no way an unbiased one, it was striking how the response to gender was so different to the response generated by questions of social mobility. This is not, I believe, due to the apathy of the my fellow Teach Firsters- we are teachers who have taken a day out of half term to gather and discuss the question. Rather, it is due to the general tone and urgency around the question of educational equity. As vital as the Teach First campaigns such as the Big Class Challenge and Challenge the Impossible are, they have little of the visceral, engaging thrust of Everyday Sexism’s messaging. Perhaps the Teach First staff body would benefit from some training from Bates in how to electrify a ready and willing base.
The conference concluded with further appeals for delegates to make pledges to action; but these pledges in themselves will be unlikely to have those sat in Westminster quaking in their boots. They are aware that Teach First faces considerable structural barriers to becoming an effective campaigning force. It can’t help that the organisation and its seemingly ever-growing London office is heavily dependent on government money. Nor can it help that it’s impressive range of partners- private, public and charitable- have many divergent interests in the education field. How aggressive a tone would any Teach First campaign against grammar schools have had? It works closely with main multi-academy trusts, some of whom would have been the first invited to open up grammars in low performing areas. There was much talk at the conference of mobilising the 10,000 strong ambassador base but this is a very diverse group of people who have been not stoked up before; they could well be adverse to Teach First abandoning its beige credentials. So, Teach First may have replaced their ameliorative management consultant with an ardent trade unionist but unless these fundamentals are addressed you can expect the barking to grow, but with little bite.