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Jan Webber looks at what can be learned from members’ first experiences, good and bad, o of the new inspection regime. More
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- Picking up the pieces
Does handing money directly to schools help them tackle exclusions more effectively? With the DfE about to embark on a trial, Liz Lightfoot reports on two local authorities already experimenting with devolved budgets for alternate provision. More
- A decade of firsts...
Ten years old this year, Teach First has fast-tracked more than 2,500 bright graduates into teaching in some of England’s toughest schools. Liz Lightfoot meets its founder and CEO, Brett Wigdortz More
Ten years old this year, Teach First has fast-tracked more than 2,500 bright graduates into teaching in some of England’s toughest schools. Liz Lightfoot meets its founder and CEO, Brett Wigdortz
A decade of firsts...
If the success of an organisation can be measured by the prestige of its headquarters then Teach First is clearly up there with the best of them.
The charity occupies two floors of 4 More London Riverside, a shimmering glass building on the Thames between London and Tower bridges housing some of the biggest private sector graduate employers – PwC, Ernst & Young, Norton Rose.
An original Damien Hirst would not look out of place but instead the walls of the Teach First floors are lined with photographs of teachers and pupils. There are moving written testimonies to the work of teachers in schools in some of the poorest parts of the country.
Teach First was founded ten years ago by Brett Wigdortz, a consultant for McKinsey & Company, the global management consulting firm. He took six months off to develop the idea of matching some of the brightest graduates with some of the most needy and challenging schools, similar to the Teach for America scheme in the US.
His plan was to recruit high-fliers to work for two years in schools where the majority of the pupils came from low income families. Teach First would provide high-quality training on the job and he hoped many would stay in teaching. If not, they would still have contributed for two years as role-models with subject expertise, he reasoned. The mission was to close the gap between the achievement of children from poor and wealthy families.
Ten years on, Teach First has placed 2,520 teachers in schools and was voted seventh in The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers. Last year there were more than 5,000 applicants for the 787 places and there are plans to increase the intake to 1,000 this year and 1,300 in 2013.
Brett is still at the helm as CEO and says he values the charity’s independence from government: “I do have people looking over my shoulder, but they are my trustees. In most cases we have been insulated from short-term political whims and able to take a longer view.”
At 38, his style is more university lecturer than corporate executive. He grew up in New Jersey, studied international politics , then worked in Honolulu for two years as a researcher for the East-West Center, an organisation that promotes better understanding between the US, Asia and the Pacific.
He lived for a time in Southeast Asia and Israel before being recruited by McKinsey as a management consultant at its offices in Jakarta and Singapore and then London.
His role as a consultant embraced what he calls “the war for talent”, how organisations can recruit and retain the best people. The key is being able to offer them a leadership role, he says, which led him to the idea that teachers needed to be rebranded as leaders of their students’ learning. It helped that he came from a teaching family. His mother has taught English for 42 years, his younger brother is a teacher and so are his aunts, uncles and two cousins.
“I took leave from McKinsey to work on the business plan intending to go back. Then I got so excited about the idea and it began to get traction,” Brett says. He took a cut of two-thirds of his six-figure salary at first, although his pay has risen since then. “On the other hand I have a job where I can’t wait to get to work on a Monday morning. I can legitimately say there hasn’t been a week when I haven’t been really excited about what we are doing,” he says.
The clever marketing of Teach First as a highly competitive entry programme also helps.
“We look for people who will make great leaders and we turn away more Oxbridge firsts than we take. Yes, we expect a 2:1 degree but applicants are selected on their leadership skills and ability to make a great teacher,” he says.
The staying on rate is high – 91 per cent complete the full two-year training in their schools and two-thirds stay a third year. Some 55 per cent of all participants who started the programme since 2003 are still in teaching, a figure not very different for the retention rate of graduates on university PGCE courses.
Tony Blair was Prime Minister when Teach First was founded in 2002 – and his second son Nicky went on to join the scheme – but it was not one of Blair’s initiatives. “I wrote the business plan and set it up with help from industry,” says Brett.
“What Tony Blair can take credit for is that his government was prepared to change the rules to allow new routes into teaching. The government gave us half the start-up funds and the rest came from industry, but it wasn’t a large sum, half a million pounds.”
Important support at the time came from John Dunford, ASCL’s then-general secretary. “John was the first senior educational professional in those early days to say he believed it would work. He became a trustee and put his reputation on the line. There were other headteachers who put their heads over the parapet and we couldn’t have done it without them.”
Trainees attend a six-week, residential induction course and are then monitored and supported for two years by Teach First in partnership with the school and universities. Ofsted recently rated the training outstanding in all categories.
Brett says: “We are in schools where the majority of children come from the third lowest income families and our belief is that those schools should produce the same results as those with wealthy families. Currently there are big gaps in attainment between children from wealthy and poor families.
“I meet inspirational headteachers who say their children deserve the same as those in independent schools. Of course, there are all kinds of reasons outside a school’s control for those gaps but our goal over the next ten years is to feed into the efforts to close those gaps nationally.”
While the programme started in London it is now running around the country and there are plans to extend it to Wales if the Assembly government approves changes to education legislation.
He’s not so sure whether there could be a ‘Headship First’ scheme. “I think a headteacher needs to have the respect of their staff and that is much easier to get if you have been a successful teacher yourself. It wouldn’t be impossible to have a great head who was not also a great teacher, but it would be much more difficult.”
Looking to the next ten years he sees the legacy of Teach First not just in terms of the number of teachers it provides but the more long-term support that its alumni are showing to schools as mentors, governors and social entrepreneurs.
“Last week I went to Uxbridge High School where a fifth of the teachers are Teach First. I first met Peter Lang, the principal, nine years ago when he had just taken over and was really struggling to meet his goals in a challenging area. Now the school has just been judged outstanding by Ofsted.”
Nearer to home he has found another sign of optimism: his five-year-old daughter wants to be a teacher when she grows up.