Interview with Teach First founder on his vision to improve opportunities for pupils from disadvantaged schools

Brett Wigdortz is the 39 year old American-born founder and chief executive of Teach First – the organisation that aims to improve opportunities for those from low-income backgrounds and increase social mobility by recruiting the best British graduates to teach in disadvantaged schools. Peter Wilby interviews Wigdortz in the Guardian…

In the sleek modern offices of Teach First, near London Bridge, young men and women, looking barely out of their teens, hurry hither and thither. I wait outside meeting rooms with names on their doors: Commitment, Integrity, Excellence, Collaboration, Leadership. I am taken to Integrity to meet Brett Wigdortz, the 39-year-old American-born founder and chief executive of Teach First, who seems diffident and a little tense. I point out that he sits opposite a notice that commands “speak honestly”. He does not laugh.

Wigdortz believes he is the leader of a cultural revolution, and that is indeed no joking matter. In his new book, Success Against the Odds – which carries lavish praise for Teach First from all three party leaders, plus HRH the Prince of Wales – 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 PGCE. 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 graduates annually, one in eight of them from Oxbridge, and nearly all with at least an upper second. The competition is stiff: only one in seven applicants is accepted. The successful are enrolled, not on anything so mundane as a training course, but on a “leadership development programme”. They join not a college or department, but “a movement”. After a four-week residential course, they plunge into classrooms, following 80-85% 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, internships with Teach First sponsors such as Goldman Sachs, HSBC and Deloitte.

So is the scheme for potential teachers or for potential business high-flyers who want to burnish their CVs? Where exactly does the balance between altruism and ambition lie? Wigdortz is adamant. “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. 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 (more than 90% in state schools), which is roughly the same as those from conventional PGCEs. Of the others, the vast majority are still involved with Teach First as “ambassadors”. “About 15% or 20% of our recruits go into business. But hardly any just wave goodbye to the kids.”

Later, I find an Observer article of 2005 that quotes a Teach First recruitment officer saying “some people who’d probably make very good teachers” are rejected “because they wouldn’t be of interest to other fast-track employers”. I email Wigdortz for comment. He replies: “We have NEVER had the goal or mission of producing high-flying people for business … We certainly take lots … who would not be of interest to [business fast-track] schemes.” He adds, though, that leadership and teaching skills are “broadly transferable”, an important point to emphasise to graduates who want to keep options open.

Wigdortz has always needed nifty footwork. To get Teach First started, he overcame scepticism from politicians, civil servants, teacher trainers and headteachers, who thought British graduates lacked sufficient idealism to go slumming in the inner cities. He was born and bred in New Jersey – not, he says, the part where people commute to lucrative jobs in New York banks. His father was in marketing, but many relatives, including his mother and brother, are teachers. Wigdortz himself, however, never considered teaching and found his schooling – at local “public schools”, US definition – “a bit boring overall”. After an economics and international studies degree, he spent several years in Asia as a freelance journalist. He then started a law course in New York, but gave up after a day: “It was just too detailed and not enough about people.” He went back to live with his parents – “they were annoyed” – and took a delivery job with Cluck-U fried chicken, from which he was sacked…

More at:  Teaching’s man with a mission to free young Britons from ‘slavery’

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