In retrospect: PGCE vs Teach First

Teacher training in action

* I suspect some of the readers of this blog will instinctively react negatively to the ‘vs’ in the title and see me as attempting to stir up the often tortured debate about these two routes into teaching. However, I don’t intend the ‘vs’ to indicate a case of ‘Which system is better?’ but simply that as a teacher trainee I could only choose one or the other. Thus, I am comparing the two routes and how, from a personal perspective, they may have differed.

** Before someone points out that TeachFirst trainees get a PGCE and so my title is slightly inaccurate, I am aware of this; but it is far simpler to distinguish the two different routes in this way. When I write ‘PGCE’, read ‘mainstream PGCE’.


The PGCE/TeachFirst debate is somewhat torturous. My intention here is not to get into a debate about the fundamentals of the two courses, but rather a more personal comparison. As someone who has just completed a PGCE, what differences might have been made to my experience had I done TeachFirst instead? Please note that I am talking about my personal PGCE experience – universities will vary drastically.


Reasons I am glad to have done a (mainstream) PGCE

1. Build up to NQT timetable

Perhaps the most intimidating idea of doing TeachFirst is the idea of having to pick up a full NQT timetable straight away. Clearly in the long run TeachFirst trainees don’t seem to suffer from this fact, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t tremendously stressful at first. The great benefit of doing a PGCE is that you start by doing perhaps just one lesson a week, and slowly build up to roughly 50-60% timetable in line with your confidence and development. Thus you get a lot of time after your early lessons to reflect on them and consider how to improve. Similarly, you get many opportunities to observe other teachers at work – undeniably more than a TeachFirst trainee.

Teacher training is inescapably an emotionally-charged year. Tough Young Teachers demonstrated just how emotional doing TeachFirst can be, and many PGCE students have a similar experience. I consider myself rare to have never cried during the PGCE year (it remains to be seen whether I make it through my NQT year). I worry that TeachFirst might result in its trainees pushing themselves too far in the name of their ‘mission’; something which the PGCE is, I think, better at modulating. For example, one week, my timetable nudged up to a number of lessons that we subsequently decided I wasn’t ready for, so we nudged it down a bit again. A TeachFirst trainee would have had far less flexibility. Is it necessarily a good thing that the TeachFirst trainee just has to (try and) power on anyway?

Of course, the other advantage for PGCE students is the constant, in-depth formative feedback. I have been formally observed in the vast majority of my lessons, and received great feedback about what I was doing well and what I could improve on (oh, the extensive list of possible improvements). This has given me targets and ideas on a very specific level – almost lesson-by-lesson. Observations reduce as your timetable and confidence increase, but the extent of the feedback you receive is hugely helpful. TeachFirst trainees may get great support, but they don’t get systematic formative observation.


2. School and subject variety

I’m not going to go down the whole ‘TeachFirst, then what?’ route because I know that’s a red herring. But I do think the PGCE is well designed to cater for the possibility that you will teach in a range of schools over a long period of time. My two placements varied drastically in student intake, school philosophy and approach to the subject. This gave me a breadth of experience, and the possibility of reflecting at a higher level on how I believe my subject (Religious Education) should be taught. We’re a subject which is constantly in a state of existential crisis, so this is particularly useful. There is much to learn from simply comparing different approaches between schools.

TeachFirst might be great for training you to work at the specific school at which you’re employed, but you may have a weaker sense of other potential approaches – both in terms of subject and school philosophy.


3. Two behaviour resets

At the end of my first placement, I was relieved to be going to a different school so I could work better on establishing a set of behavioural rules. Although my behaviour management is always developing and certainly still in need of work, this chance to start fresh was very valuable. I am also pleased that I have another opportunity to do so once I start my job in September. Completely new school and I can make sure I get the boundaries right.

I also became accustomed to different approaches to behaviour management – one school I was on placement at had a school-wide consistent behaviour policy for teachers to fall back on; my other school had a much more teacher-led approach (but then behaviour was on the whole better in the first place). The opportunity to work with different kids and different systems was useful preparation for a longer-term experience and for getting a school that is right for me.


Reasons I wish I had done TeachFirst

I can almost hear a sharp intake of breath from some on the mainstream PGCE side of the fence; but I think without considering seriously the advantages you may get as a TeachFirst trainee, we can’t build on our own course.

1. Pay

To be blunt, I would have been in a much better financial situation if I had done TeachFirst. Rather than a PGCE, which has added around £15k to my existing undergraduate debt, TeachFirst trainees are paid from the start. It might be an unqualified teachers’ salary, but they are still earning a similar amount to what I am adding to my debt. It strikes me as absurd that people should have to become indebted to become teachers; currently the only way out of this is to do TeachFirst – if you’re one of the select few – or work for three years before applying via the School Direct (salaried) scheme.

It’s also frustrating because your student loan effectively runs out at the end of the PGCE academic year, but many trainees will still have three months until their first pay cheque kicks in. Some schools start paid inductions in July, but many don’t, and it seems this is a black hole that hasn’t really been considered. Do we want our trainees to be running around trying to get summer work, or do we want them to be preparing for the hardest year of their teaching lives – the NQT year? If all schools did July inductions and started paying from this point, it would be a massive support to many PGCE students.

2. Status in school (the biggest reason)

This means a plurality of things. One that is particularly problematic is that students aren’t dumb, and know that if some random person turns up and starts teaching somewhat dodgy lessons and doesn’t seem quite on top of things (while the usual class teacher frantically scribbles observation notes from the back), they will probably figure out that you are a trainee teacher. Even if they don’t, they still know you’re not the real teacher. This has a negative impact on your status in their mind. Anyone who works as a supply teacher will also know exactly what I mean. Of course, if you’re great at behaviour management, you won’t have this issue so much, but nevertheless, student perception that you are not their ‘real’ teacher will impact many trainees in some form.

But this goes significantly beyond pupil perception. One example is this – as a PGCE trainee, you may well not have access to a school’s database. Huge systems containing seemingly interminable data about students are now ubiquitous in schools, but this makes their lack of availability to PGCE trainees immensely frustrating. The logic seems to be data protection – namely, since we aren’t the official teachers of any class, we have to either be given total access to everything (in line with senior staff), or no access to anything. Schools, always nervous of the wrong thing happening to pupil data, and unwilling to make PGCE trainees seem superior to employed teachers, tend to go for the latter. This leads to frustrating situations – for example, as a trainee you may not be able to take the register. The observing teacher will often have to hand over their laptop for you to do it, or will do it themselves, sending the message that you as the trainee are simply ‘doing the teaching’ – rather than ‘being a teacher’. It also makes it difficult to get access to the data that Ofsted and school management think we must obsess over.

Similarly, as a trainee you won’t have your own classroom, leaving you hurtling around the school with all your stuff, nor are you likely to get a desk in the departmental office, or a school laptop*. I don’t necessarily blame schools for this – they may lack space, equipment or money to do these – but nor does it mean that it doesn’t matter for us as trainees. If there’s one thing I’m looking forward to next year it’s having some sense of genuinely being part of the school – my own classroom, my own computer and access to all the systems I need. All of these tell your students that you are their real teacher – and all of these are things that TeachFirst trainees have straight away.

*One of my placement schools did the last two of these things, but most fellow trainees didn’t get them.

3. Development

One thing that I particularly wish I had access to is the longer-term support that TeachFirst Ambassadors have access to. Although my university is strong for professional development opportunities, these are only if you remain within the teaching schools network that it is part of. Those who start teaching outside of it do not have access to it. By contrast, all TeachFirst trainees have access to a range of opportunities precisely because they trained via the organisation.


In retrospect, I am still glad I did a PGCE overall, and was willing to deal with most of the drawbacks I have outlined. However, with data and IT systems only becoming more central over time, it’ll become more and more frustrating for trainees to not have access.