Teach First: Setting the record straight

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Founded 10 years ago, Teach First is now the largest graduate recruiter in the UK and its American founder Brett Wigdortz has just been awarded an OBE for his services to education. However, the charity is not without its critics. Pete Henshaw reports.

You only have to read the comments beneath the recent Guardian interview with Teach First founder Brett Wigdortz to see that the charity’s approach to teacher recruitment and training certainly splits opinion.

On face value, it is hard to understand. Teach First is a charity set up to tackle the link between poverty and poor educational outcomes. To reverse a trend which still blights education today – that the greatest determinant of a child’s educational success is how wealthy their parents are.

The model is simple. Teach First recruits “top” graduates and then trains them in partnership with a group of 14 universities and places them in challenging schools to work as teachers for at least two years. To be eligible, a school must have more than half of pupils who come from the poorest 30 per cent of families in the UK.

It is perhaps the model itself which has irked some teachers already working hard to support children in these schools. Indeed, one award-winning London teacher, writing in SecEd in 2011, said of Teach First: “Many of these entrants are obsessed with getting to the top and if this is not to be they will sneak back into their corporate world having found it wasn’t for them.”

But Mr Wigdortz is clear that Teach First is not just a two-year scheme, but a “real movement of people” who make a lifelong commitment to tackling the poverty gap in education, or as he terms it: “A two-year commitment to the classroom and a lifetime commitment to the mission.

He added: “If someone teaches for two years and then leaves, that’s a failure. You don’t have to stay in teaching for life, having people who teach a few years then mentor through business or get involved in policy, for example.”

And this vision does seem to have been taken up by its teachers – 52 per cent of all Teach Firsters are still in the classroom today, rising to 65 per cent for those from recent cohorts. In total, Teach First has seen 4,300 trainees pass through its doors so far, with 92 per cent going on to gain Qualified Teacher Status and 88 per cent completing their two-year tenure in the classroom.

In September, 1,000 new participants began training and Teach First hopes to place 1,260 “top” graduates in 2013, making it the largest graduate recruiter in the UK. It began life in London, but now operates in eight regions across England (West Midlands, East Midlands, Yorkshire/Humber, North West, North East, Kent, and most recently the South West).

In 2011, the charity expanded to the primary sector, with 84 teachers having already entered classrooms in London and four other regions.

Most recently, Teach First’s government funding was increased to £32.4 million for 2013. The coalition is also supporting its ambition to train 1,500 teachers in 2014/15. This expansion will mean that Teach First will reach 90 per cent of eligible schools by 2016.

However, Mr Wigdortz is keen to stress that Teach First is an independent charity which also received funding from many other sources. But what of this use of the word “top” graduates.

Another accusation I have seen levelled at Teach First is one of elitism. One of the Guardian online comments states: “The children of the privileged get to play schools with real kids who suffer as a result.”

But Mr Wigdortz points immediately to the fact that a quarter of Teach First teachers would have been eligible for free school meals themselves; 20 per cent are from ethnic minority backgrounds. Furthermore, he is clear that it is not simply about good grades or a view that academic ability automatically equals a good teacher.

He continued: “We reject more outstanding people than we accept. I do not believe someone who is outstanding academically will automatically become a great teacher. Teach First teachers must have respect and humility. If they are going in an annoying people then we have picked (the wrong people).”

There are in fact eight key competencies that Teach First looks for: humility, respect and empathy; interaction; knowledge; leadership; planning/organising; problem-solving; resilience; and self-evaluation. Perhaps, then, some teachers’ ill feeling stems purely from the fact that Mr Wigdortz’s vision is based around a fundamental belief that change is needed and that the language he has used certainly pulls no punches.

In Success Against the Odds, his book chronicling the first decade of Teach First, Mr Wigdortz discusses the “stench of apathy” he felt on visiting his first London school more than 10 years ago. It was worse than prison, he says in the opening paragraph.

But when challenged on this use of language, he is quick to clarify that he does not believe the system is flooded with “loads of awful teachers”. He explained: “What is difficult is on the one hand I believe that things do need to change and that’s not saying people are not working hard and there’s not great things happening in schools. We need to work in a collaborative way. There’s not loads of awful teachers in the system. In the best systems, generally, they are collaborating really well. There’s no profession in the world where we get really great at something by doing it by ourselves. The best people are constantly learning and sharing.”

He added: “Our teachers our part of a wider profession. I would never say that Teach First is making the change happen, what we are trying to do is play our part.”

Mr Wigdortz is aware of one common misunderstanding which he says could lead to resentment of Teach Firsters – the belief that many of them are not qualified.

He explained: “A lot of teachers think that our teachers do not get a lot of training. Our teachers get two years of training and Ofsted has rated their PGCE training as outstanding. They meet all of the same standards as anybody else. Exactly the same skills, competencies and level of knowledge.

“I would say most teachers in our schools like Teach First. If they do not like the organisation it is because they do not totally understand the PGCE (aspect).”

Mr Wigdortz, originally from New Jersey, came to the UK as a management consultant at McKinsey, when he found himself working on an education project and entering the “stench of apathy” school in west London.

It was this visit that started a journey which would see Mr Wigdortz take what was originally planned as a six-month leave of absence to develop and build the Teach First model.

In an interesting exchange, Mr Wigdortz states his belief that the UK’s private schools are no better than its state schools. He explained: “Schools in low-income communities are not worse than schools in high income communities. Schools in low-income communities have to be much better in fact to make up for these advantages. Teachers in low-income schools need to be better than teachers in high-income schools.

“I have seen a lot of evidence which suggests that private schools are not better than state schools. I think that’s a myth. For the most part I think (parents are) wasting their money sending children to private schools. I would say some of the most exciting schools I have seen are low-income schools.”

Mr Wigdortz is optimistic for the future. He no longer feels there is any school in London which holds a “stench of apathy”, although believes there is “still some of that” outside the capital. The awarding of an OBE for Mr Wigdortz’s services to education is perhaps a fitting end to Teach First’s first 10 years.

But Mr Wigdortz, now a British citizen, is not about to let up and is set on the next 10 years, having just overseen the creation of the charity’s 2022 Impact Goals. These are a list of five targets – compiled by Teach First teachers among others – which the charity will work to help achieve by 2022.

They include to close the poverty gap in numeracy and literacy by 90 per cent and the gap in GCSE results by 44 per cent.

He concluded: “I am really excited by the next 10 years. I feel like after 10 years we are seeing the change in London. The next step is seeing national change.”

CAPTION: Vision: Teach First founder Brett Wigdortz at the charity's offices in London Bridge (Photo: Lucie Carlier)



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