High-achieving teachers lead education revolution

An innovative scheme is encouraging top graduatesto teach in deprived areas, writes Peter Wilby

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 11:41am

Brett Wigdortz, the 39-year-old founder and chief executive of Teach First, believes he is the leader of an educational revolution. In his new book, Success Against the Odds, he declares that lack of opportunity for young Britons from low-income backgrounds is "a modern day version of the ancient scourge of slavery or feudalism".

The answer, he argues, is to engage the best of British graduates, who previously regarded teaching as a desperate last resort, in a mission to raise standards and aspirations in disadvantaged schools. They commit to teach for two years in such schools, during which they acquire a postgraduate general certificate in education (PGCE), the standard teaching qualification in Britain. Thereafter, they may continue teaching, or they may not.

But if they move into business, politics, or elsewhere, they should continue to support poor children's education by, for example, joining governing bodies, mentoring promising pupils or supporting sponsorship schemes.

Teach First, now in its 10th year, recruits about 1,000 British graduates annually. One in eight of them are from Oxbridge, and nearly all have at least an upper second. The competition is stiff, and only one in seven applicants are accepted. The successful applicants are enrolled on a "leadership development programme" rather than a mundane training course.

After a four-week residential course, they plunge into classrooms, following 80 to 85 per cent of a full timetable, with tuition and mentoring throughout the year. They can also take a short leadership course at a business college and, during the summer holidays, intern with Teach First sponsors such as Goldman Sachs, HSBC and Deloitte.

So is the scheme for potential teachers, or for potential business high-fliers who want to burnish their CVs? Where exactly does the balance between altruism and ambition lie?

"We have a very clear mission: to address educational disadvantage and reduce the gap between low-income and high-income students. We look for leaders because we think great teachers need to be great leaders," says Wigdortz. "Most people starting our programme don't expect to stay in teaching. But they start loving the kids and moving to leadership positions within the school." After five years, more than half are still in teaching.

To get Teach First started, Wigdortz overcame scepticism from politicians, civil servants, and teacher trainers, who thought British graduates lacked sufficient idealism to go slumming in the inner cities. Wigdortz drew inspiration from his upbringing in New Jersey in the US: his father was in marketing, but his mother and brother are teachers. (Wigdortz himself had never considered teaching, and found his schooling "a bit boring overall".)

After an economics and international studies degree, he spent time in Asia as a freelance journalist. He then started a law course in New York, but gave up after just one day.

Eventually, he landed a job with McKinsey management consultants in Indonesia. Posted to London as part of a development programme, he opted for a short project, initiated by the Prince of Wales, on how to improve dire exam results in inner-city London.

Wigdortz, after visiting several schools, concluded "educational inequality was the biggest social issue in the country", and came up with the Teach First idea. He had never managed or started anything before, but found himself leading a team to get it off the ground.

Wigdortz is now a British citizen with a British wife and three small children. "It wouldn't enter my head to send them to a private school," he emphasises.

Teach First is a roaring success. Ofsted, the British schools inspectorate, rates it as "outstanding" on 11 out of 11 criteria. Schools welcome its recruits, although they pay recruitment fees on top of salaries that are only slightly below those for newly qualified teachers. Those that recruit from Teach First report an above-average improvement in results.

It's hard not to admire his sincerity and dedication which, he says, derive partly from his Jewish faith. There is also the peculiarly American belief in an individual's capacity to change the world. "He inspires the people who work with him to the same commitment," says Tim Brighouse, former chief adviser for London schools.

Yet for all the idealism, Wigdortz needed hard-headed pragmatism to succeed. "He's used some extremely effective lobbying techniques, which the education system hadn't really experienced before," says John Bangs, visiting fellow at Cambridge University and a former teachers' union official. Wigdortz also avoids taking positions on anything remotely politically controversial, such as businesses running schools.

Yet Teach First has its critics. Jonathan Savage, reader in education at Manchester Metropolitan University, calculates that it costs British taxpayers 66 per cent more per graduate than the conventional PGCE route, although this doesn't take account of schools' savings on fully qualified teachers when they have trainees on staff.

The scheme is also accused of elitism. Wigdortz insists that humility and respect are among the essential qualities sought from the Teach First applicants during day-long tests and interviews.

He adds that 16 per cent come from ethnic minority backgrounds, and 24 per cent qualified for free school meals or education maintenance allowances.

But a study by academics at London Metropolitan University found recruits guilty of patronising attitudes: a belief that they, as teachers from posh universities, have nothing to learn from low-income communities.

"There's a danger that you have high-fliers parachuting in and out," says Bangs. "If that's not so, they need to say it more loudly. These are fragile schools that need consistency. Emotional intelligence and empathy are as important as academic achievement."

Wigdortz and his Teach First "movement" have become the poster boys and girls for the social mobility agenda, which is now embraced by all three major British parties. Britain, Wigdortz says, has one of the highest correlations in the developed world between children's educational attainment and their parents' income.

His native America has an equally high correlation, and both countries also have high levels of poverty and inequality. The education gap may be impossible to close significantly while inequality is so high and, in any case, social mobility does not itself eradicate poverty. On the contrary, it may legitimise it.

"Poverty is a huge issue," Wigdortz says. "It's complex and multifaceted. There's no silver bullet. There are tens of thousands of children out there who don't have access to certain roles in society. Should we just give up on them? We have to do something."

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