Interview: Brett Wigdortz

Ever thought about applying to Teach First? KATIE FORSTER meets BRETT WIGDORTZ, founder and CEO of the organisation that recruits high-flying graduates to teach in challenging schools.

book Brett Wigdortz educational disadvantage Graduates interview katie forster michael gove schools success against the odds Teach first teaching

Chances are you know someone who has applied to Teach First, currently the largest graduate recruiter in the UK. You may even have friends bravely battling through their tricky first term as a teacher.

Teach First is a charity that recruits high-achieving graduates and trains them as teachers in low-income schools. After the two year program participants can choose to work in business or other fields, although many stay in teaching.

It has grown rapidly since its foundation in 2002: this year 1,250 graduates are taking part in the program, more than double the number of participants in 2010.

The Tab spoke to Brett Wigdortz, the scheme’s CEO and founder, about the first ten years of the organisation, why the UK has such a high level of educational disadvantage, and his plans for Teach First to grow even larger.

When you set up the program ten years ago, did you ever imagine it would take off like this?

I always hoped it would, to be honest. I’ve always felt we should work with as many children as possible and we should continue improving to make sure the impact we’re having on the children is as great as possible.

What has been your greatest achievement in the last ten years?

Seeing some of the schools where Teach First has helped to change things. Also the fact that addressing educational disadvantage is becoming a bigger issue nationally.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

Probably helping our teachers to be successful in schools, which are often very difficult places, and constantly improving our training. One of the challenges that we expected, but haven’t had, is convincing top university graduates to take part. There’s a much greater desire to be part of social change than people might give Cambridge or other university graduates credit for.

They say that teachers have the best stories; what’s your favourite?

I talked to a teenager recently at a school that had improved a lot. He was predicted an A in Further Maths and wanted to go to a top university. He told me about his brother who had left the school five years earlier, when it was atrocious, and who is now in prison. He said, ‘actually, my brother’s a lot smarter than me’. He was really angry that the school had failed his brother. That story is in my book and I think about it a lot.

Why do you think the UK has one of the highest levels of educational disadvantage in the Western world?

I’m sure there are people here who are doing – or should be doing – doctoral dissertations on that subject! I think it’s a historic thing, going back centuries to feudalism. Britain has never had a major revolution and social mobility is not a cultural norm in British society. There’s no social mobility in the monarchy, is there? Education has never really been developed to break that down.

What’s your opinion on Michael Gove’s GCSE reforms?

I do feel that the exam system needed some reform. However, I think any exam reform needs to be cross-party: we don’t want a situation where exams change at each election, as that disrupts the entire education system.

My big worry is exams which only a certain amount of children can pass, because that means that children from lower income communities can only succeed if children from high income communities fail, which will make the work we’re trying to do very difficult.

The scheme has hugely expanded in the last ten years. How do you feel this will change Teach First?

It won’t affect the high calibre of the graduates we admit onto the scheme as we will never reduce what we’re looking for. Last year we had over 7,000 applications for 1,000 positions and I think about 10% of Cambridge finalists applied to the scheme.

If you look at the percentage of Cambridge students who apply for top accountancy firms, or other things which are much more boring and less leadership-y than Teach First, I don’t see why we can’t double our applications – why can’t we get 20% of Cambridge finalists to apply?

How do you think universities such as Cambridge can improve access to pupils from disadvantaged schools?

I think top universities think their job is to sift talent as it comes to them, but they should be going out and finding the best talent in the country – there’s no way that’s in just a few private schools. Many of our teachers who went to universities like Cambridge will say ‘these kids are more intelligent than some people I studied with.’ I think that top universities aren’t doing enough to find these kids, get them to apply and help their application.

How would you persuade a Cambridge student who is applying to corporate graduate schemes to consider Teach First?

No matter which corporate graduate scheme you want to do, you can do it after Teach First – you’re not closing down options, you’re opening them up. If you want a real leadership opportunity and you want to change people’s lives, there’s no better graduate role than Teach First.

Who was your favourite teacher at school?

I actually found school rather boring and never really enjoyed it. There was one teacher called Mrs Wolf who let me take advantage of my creativity and entrepreneurship and encouraged me in many ways.

Do you have a motto?

Maybe ‘you have to climb out of the valleys of death to reach the hills of happiness.’

Brett’s book, Success Against the Odds; the story of Teach First is out now.