Let’s Chat: Jenny Sutton, Regional Director, Teach First

Our Let’s Chat series shines the spotlight on our all-important stakeholders that form a vital part of Engine Shed. Teach First works with schools to recruit and develop teachers and leaders across the UK. We sat down with Jenny Sutton, South West Regional Director to find out how they have recruited over 14,000 graduates and career changers to date, and their impact on Bristol.

1. For those that don’t know much about you, what is your role and what is your background?

I am the Regional Director of Teach First in the South West. I came to the role having been a trainee in one of the very first cohorts of Teach First, before becoming an Ambassador. I completed the charity’s teacher training programme in 2004, back when it was only in its second year of running (I was one of 180 people in the cohort). Fast forward to 2019, and the charity has grown from a London-only base when I was a trainee to a place where we are recruiting over 1700 graduates and career-changers nationally.

Back when I was teaching, I eventually became an Assistant Head at Highbury Grove academy in London, a school that went from special measures to outstanding in seven years.

Having grown up in this area, I could see that there was a need for Teach First in the South West and I was passionate about starting that. I felt connected to the schools in the region and so I wanted to be a part of what is happening here, with leaders transforming schools. Teach First plays a vital role in that.

2. What does Teach First do?

We are a national charity with a mission to build a fair education for all. We do this by supporting teachers, leaders and schools facing the biggest challenges, in the most disadvantaged communities.

As part of this, we’ve recruited over 14,000 graduates and career changers to become teachers, many of whom might not have considered a career in teaching were it not for Teach First.  Our teacher training programme lasts two years, in schools serving some of the most deprived areas in the UK.

This work has led to us becoming one of the largest graduate recruiters in the UK – 4th on the Sunday Times top 100 graduate employers in 2018, which placed us one ahead of Google!

Originally, we were focused solely in London – where outcomes for the poorest students was often the worst in the country. Now, London is statistically the best place. Teach First has played an important role in that.

We want to encourage our Ambassadors to remain in teaching, by showing them that they can have a satisfying career in this profession, through a range of development opportunities and school leadership pathways. We also use our voice to have a positive impact on issues that are particularly challenging for schools e.g. supportive infrastructure, teacher pay and workload, as well as calling for greater investment in schools that need it the most. We also pride ourselves on our links to businesses. Their support over the years has provided valuable funding, and has allowed us to provide schools and young people with rich insights into careers.

3. Why is it important to support the teaching side of schools? Why is there this gap in provision?

Teaching is such a valuable profession that doesn’t always have the right status. If you look at the media, journalists lay a lot of problems at the feet of schools in terms of issues and challenges in society, whereas in reality there are many forces contributing to these beyond what a school can do. As a result, there is a misplaced stereotype around becoming a teacher – that it is hard and not rewarding. There are certainly challenges, and part of our work is about addressing these. But it is also about highlighting that teaching is a very rewarding career and every day, makes a difference to the lives of young people where it is most needed.

4. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing our schools and education in the UK?

Right now, it all comes down to the future of funding. In addition, we are going through a challenging time as there is a significant bulge in population going through primary schools at present, so a significant growth in number of school places is needed at secondary level.

5. Are there any emerging successes? If so, what are they?

There is a huge amount of success in Bristol particularly, not only in Teach First partner schools. You see increasing numbers of schools in multi academy trusts transforming in very tough circumstances in different parts of the city.  Many of the schools that serve those areas, have become places of aspiration, which they weren’t before. That is happening increasingly. Our role is to provide a pipeline of high potential teachers and leaders into those schools.  For example, one of our ambassador teachers, Izzy Ambrose, a senior leader in London, has moved to Yate Academy as Headteacher and has led a successful improvement journey there in just two years. We support the building of capacity within our schools by bringing high-potential teachers and leaders into the city and wider region with a huge amount of good practice.

6. The skills gap is often cited by business especially those that are scaling as a barrier to growth. What are our education practices doing to close that?

Schools want to ensure their students make the expected levels of progress in core curriculum areas of course, but they also want to make sure their pupils leave school with key skills such as problem solving, communication skills and resilience fully embedded. Teach First provides a programme to Careers Leads in partner schools to support them to build a strategic and whole-school approach to their careers work with young people. We’re working closely with Engine Shed on that, so that the guidance we give to schools about careers is based on the future economy and job prospects, rather than thinking solely about what exists now.

7. The media talk about a shortage of teachers both in application and through drop out. What is Teach First doing to address that?

Firstly, recruitment. We are the largest graduate recruiter of teachers, so we are playing our part in bringing people into the sector: in fact, we are the biggest recruiter of STEM teachers. Secondly, retention. We statistically don’t look different to other routes in terms of this. On average, two out of three teachers remain and what we are increasingly seeing is the number of people who leave and then return. Generally, we are focused on the development of leadership pathways so that participants know the progression and development opportunities that provide a rich and rewarding future. We give them that next opportunity to keep them there. Graduates are focused on that, so we need more opportunities.

We are also recognising that we are not in world where you do the same thing all your working life. People are going to be working for 60 years, so are unlikely to remain in society doing one thing. People will potentially go out of the profession but could well return. Our ambassador heads have gone out and worked in big businesses but have come back to education when they realise that it is rewarding to know that day to day you are making a difference for young people who need you the most.

8. How did you get to hear about Engine Shed?

Through a conversation I had with James Durie (Business West). When I started Teach First in the South West I met with James and John Savage and they knew about Teach First, recognising that we were known for our work beyond just about getting graduates into schools serving economically deprived areas. They were keen to hear how they could play a part and work with businesses to support our work. James talked about Engine Shed and the vision for it. Engine Shed seemed to be a cutting-edge innovation and a very good way of distinguishing Bristol from other cities.  Over the past few years, Bristol has become a place where tech start-ups rapidly grow and thrive and Engine Shed supports that.

I like that the Engine Shed wants to bring communities together, that might not normally work in the same space.  Schools can use the facility to host their inset days, there is a university presence, and it is a welcoming space where people from different sectors come together. It seemed like Engine Shed is very attuned to what Teach First is doing.  Engine Shed has supported us by hosting events for our Careers and Employability Programme, which has brought new schools into the space – schools that might not otherwise have known it existed.

9. How would you describe Engine Shed?

It’s a very friendly, very busy place where you sit down to do one type of activity, then you are overhearing a conversation and end up trying to problem solve and doing something different. It is a place where you can come to work and be productive, a place that surprises you, and it feels inclusive when you bring guests to it.

10. How and why did you get involved with Engine Shed? What does it bring to you?

A third of our funding comes from corporate support, philanthropists and trusts. We can play a helpful role for employers who want to ensure that they are opening opportunities to all young people from all backgrounds e.g. apprenticeships for pupils.  For a contribution or donation, we can put together a package that fulfils the businesses’ CSR aims, something we have been doing for a long time with major national partners.

Engine Shed has helped make introductions to businesses and invited us to networking events, and we are increasingly seeing the benefits of the partnerships that have come out of these, for schools and businesses.

11. Engine Shed’s Diverse Workforce for the Future project has been successfully delivering for the past 2-3 years – what sort of impact do you think this approach has and will have?

I know a little of the work – the Engine Shed on Tour concept of taking an experience to students was a very valuable one because there is no doubt that experience often will make someone enthused to consider a career in that industry. You can’t get that from reading books, you need a taste of it and Engine Shed is giving that experience and taking it to schools. Research shows that if you engage with an employer four times over the course of your education in a meaningful way, you are six times less likely to become NEET. Constant reinforcing of the value and opportunities of work to generate income and provide personal satisfaction is rewarding, and that’s what these initiatives are modelling.

12. To date, Engine Shed has spent more resource on ‘doing’ than ‘measuring’ – do you think that’s right?

I think there has to be a balance of measuring and doing. Too much focus on measuring isn’t helpful and leads to a lack of doing. The time is right to evaluate activity to enable Engine Shed to focus their work, as anyone would naturally do. When in initial start-up phase, there is a natural appetite to try new things, and you can quickly gauge from the gut feeling whether something is working or not, defining for the next strategy the key things to be measured and key things that link back to impact. However, measurements should not become limiting things in the future.

13. Engine Shed encourages collaboration between academia, commerce and public sector bodies – how important is this and what opportunities does it provide?

It’s really important. Naturally, as a result of workforces being based in one physical building, it can be easy for anyone to become siloed, even in the digital age.  This space provides a great opportunity to bring people together to share expertise and challenge stereotypes.  But we have gone even further than that. Through the T-WEX project, we’ve been able to provide our teachers with first hand work experience in a commercial setting. Hosted by a SETsquared Bristol business, the teachers can see how a firm operates and the necessary skills, both academic and personal, that are needed by students for their future careers. It’s been rewarding and enriching thus far.

14. As an industry sector, how can teaching contribute to inclusive economic growth – and, what does “inclusion” mean to you?

If we were fully inclusive, we would not be living in a country where the greatest determining factor on what a young person achieves is still parental income. The amount of untapped potential this generates in the UK costs our economy £20 billion per annum.  Beyond that there is a moral imperative to do more too. Inclusion for me is about every individual being able to make a fully informed choice, to inform their future.  My own experience is of growing up in a community where I was the first to go to university.  I didn’t know what a lawyer was for example and so I could not choose it as a career.  If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. I never saw many professions, so it didn’t naturally occur to me to consider them as an option. Education can change that.  But teachers can’t do it alone, we need policy to support schools, and businesses that want to work with the most economically deprived communities with an inclusive mind set.

15. Finally, the B-word, how does this affect the teaching profession and what is being done to manage this?

Uncertainty is unsettling for all; for this next generation, we have a duty to ensure that what ever comes out of Brexit is positive. The intense focus on Brexit pulls everyone away from education unless they are in the classroom every day. The important role education plays in the city and economy is de-prioritised as a result of a natural desire and need to work through implications of Brexit. Adults are sharing a lot of that feeling of uncertainty, which means a lot of young people will also be feeling that uncertainty, which adds pressure in a world that already has a lot of pressure on them anyway. So how do we protect, and how do we create a better world for them?