To find the true spirit and intent behind an organisation, it can be enlightening to follow the money trail.  And with Teach for All devotees from 35 countries descending on Auckland for a conference this week, it’s worth inquiring what this global movement is really about.

Educators have been saying for a long time that we need to do more to entice the best and brightest to teaching. Many also think more teacher training should occur in the classroom. For the past couple of years, Teach First NZ has been tackling these issues with an exclusive and intensive summer training course for university graduates, followed by two years learning on the job in low decile high schools.

I have nothing negative to say about the enthusiastic and well-meaning graduates who take up Teach First NZ positions. They want to teach and they want to make a difference in children’s lives. And who could blame them for wanting to do a fully taxpayer-funded summer course and then get paid as they learn on the job? However, it is naïve to think that with a few weeks training, an enthusiastic, bright young person with no teaching experience is the best candidate to teach our most vulnerable and challenging students.

Disadvantaged students deserve experienced and qualified teachers. It’s true that low decile schools may have difficulties filling some teaching positions, particularly in subjects in short supply such as maths and science. However, putting an enthusiastic apprentice in charge of a class is a poor solution.

While the graduate retention rate after the first two years of operation has been high, NZCER research has found that after two years of on-the-job training, 38 percent of the first cohort of teachers (five out of 13) have moved into higher decile schools once they became fully qualified. In other words, low decile kids are the guinea pigs while the recruits find their feet, then, once they have finished learning how to teach, many take their skills to greener suburbs. If this scheme is benefitting anyone, it doesn’t seem to be the low-decile students.

So, who does benefit and what is behind this movement that began in 1989 as Teach for America?

Teach First NZ has a stated goal that I unreservedly support – tackling educational inequality in our schools, with a vision that “all young people in Aotearoa New Zealand achieve their full educational potential, regardless of socioeconomic background”.

However, the money behind the organisation hints at an additional agenda, with sponsorship from the likes of Deloitte, Chapman Tripp and KPMG. Contributing philanthropic foundations are run by leaders in big business, investment funds and the like. The most intriguing of these is the Aotearoa Foundation, an affiliate of The Robertson Foundation. Founder Julian Robertson is now retired and spends some of his time in New Zealand. His name has been linked to a possible charter school in Queenstown.

According to its website, The Robertson Foundation aspires to, “measurably affect significant social change in the principal areas of education, the environment, and medical research.”

In its own words, The Robertson Foundation utilises a two-pronged approach:

  • “Reform from Within” – supporting activities that enhance existing system policies and practices, drive more effective use of resources, and conduct demonstration projects which can be adopted throughout public systems.
  • Drive Change by Generating External Pressure – encouraging competition by supporting the development of charter schools, voucher programs, and resources that enable informed parent choice.

This is classic neoliberal system change for the ultimate goal of making profit from education. It begins with public education and education policy being increasingly influenced by billionaires rather than parents or teachers.

This has been obvious for many years in Julian Robertson’s homeland of the US, where multi-billionaires have a long history of pouring money into their educational pet projects.

Teach for America, which is the inspiration for Teach First organisations around the globe, has evolved into a political powerhouse, with net assets totalling US$419 million.

During the financial crisis from 2008-2012, public education spending plummeted, but TFA generated revenues of more than US$1.1 billion from both government and private sources seeking to invest in reform for primary and secondary education.

To continue its exponential growth, TFA is increasingly moving into wealthy areas where there is no teacher shortage, and incurring the wrath of local communities and qualified teachers who have been sidelined in favour of cheaper replacements.

Such a scenario sounds outlandish in New Zealand, where Teach First NZ is active in just a handful of Auckland and Northland schools.

However, last month [September], PPTA argued before the Employment Court that the Ministry of Education, Auckland University and/or Teach First NZ were “inciting, instigating, aiding and/or abetting breaches of the State Sector Act and the Secondary Teachers’ Collective Agreement (STCA)”.

Teach First NZ and Auckland University (which trains the candidates) carry out their own selection process and ask the schools to “appoint” staff they have selected.

PPTA is of the view that this breaches both the State Sector Act and the Collective Agreement and does not allow schools to advertise and hire the best person for the job. The court is yet to announce its decision.

Research on the educational effectiveness of TFA and Teach First in other countries has been inconclusive, however some of its biggest critics are disenchanted former recruits. They are increasingly expressing their concerns online and in major publications, and protesting at recruitment drives on college campuses.

These well-placed critics have questioned the quality of the training compared to traditional teacher education and say they are not well prepared to teach in real schools. They also argue that TFA and other alternative certification routes are undermining the profession and devaluing public education.

In the past few years, New Zealand has starting drifting down the path of neoliberal education reform. We only need to look to America to see how far it can go – and they have by no means finished their privatisation of public education. It starts with standardisation, “choice”, competition and de-professionalising teaching and education. Here, National Standards, charter schools, sidelining of teachers through a new non-representative governing body, and “alternative certification” have come in quick succession. A plan to fund schools according to student performance has recently been announced. The alternative is trust and professionalism, funding equity, collaboration and personalised learning. It’s not too late to go down that path, but we need to turn around now.