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Teach First

Author: Julie Caulier Grice
Published Date: 10 April 2008

There was a clear need for quality teaching staff in London’s most challenging schools. Bret Wigdortz, Teach First’s founder, carried out research into the relationship between a school’s level of deprivation and the quality of its performance. He found that the number of excellent teachers in a school was one of the strongest predictors of improved pupil performance, especially in schools with a poor record. Wigdortz concluded that the best way to change this was through higher quality teaching and leadership in schools.


In August 2001, while working on a pro bono study for London First and Business in the Community on how businesses could improve secondary education in London, Wigdortz (then a McKinsey consultant) came up with the idea of taking a US-based programme called Teach for America and adapting it to the UK environment. The London scheme would have a stronger focus on leadership and closer links with business. The idea was to get top graduates, mainly recruited from the Russell Group of universities, to commit to teaching for two years, gaining transferable skills for whatever field they chose to join afterwards. Teach First aims to address educational disadvantage by transforming graduates into effective, inspirational teachers and leaders in all fields. They prepare graduates for the classroom with high-quality certified teacher training and leadership education.


Implementation Initial research demonstrated that the Teach for America model would not work in the UK unless it was adapted to the country’s specific context. Wigdortz wrote a business plan and took a six month leave of absence from McKinsey to establish and launch Teach First as a charity. Wigdortz secured the initial support of Rona Kiley at London First, and financial backing from George Iacobescu, Chief Executive at Canary Wharf (who invested £25,000), and from February 2002, Wigdortz worked closely with Kiley and John May, former Director of Education at Business in the Community, to make the recommendation a reality. It was a challenge to raise the required funds in the early days. Teach First had to raise a total of £1 million, including £500,000 from the government and £50,000 each from ten other sponsors. The government was reluctant to support Teach First until the organisation had business backing, while business was unwilling to endorse the project without government support. Political timing was also important for Teach First. London Challenge had just been established and Andrew Adonis, then at 10 Downing Street, helped the initiative secure government funding of £500,000, prompting other sponsors to come on board.


Teach First was officially launched on 15th July 2002 by Stephen Twigg, former Minister for London Schools, with Wigdortz as CEO. Its goal in the first year was to recruit 200 top graduates, so as to create the feeling of a “real cohort, a real prestige graduate scheme”. Wigdortz described how Teach First made a deliberate effort to improve graduates’ perceptions of teaching in poor schools: “we didn’t want it to be just a marginal change, but a radical change, so top Oxbridge graduates would go from thinking [it’s] the worst thing they could possibly do, to one of the best things they could possibly do. So it wasn’t just a little change, but a 180 degree change in people’s perceptions.”


Teach First attracted 1,300 applications for those initial 200 places. The role of funding companies was also crucial. These companies not only provided money, but also helped to lure top graduates with the prospect of future employment and the opportunity to network with executives from some of the world's most prestigious companies and organisations.


Raising funds in years two and three proved difficult and Teach First narrowly avoided closure by bringing on new sponsors including Gatsby, NESTA and HSBC Educational Trust, alongside ongoing funding from Esmee Fairburn and Garfield Weston. After this period they were able to demonstrate success and underwent an independent evaluation, which made attracting future funding much easier. For the first three years, graduate teacher recruitment remained at 200, but subsequently grew to 260 and 310 in years four and five respectively. Growth focused attention on funding and also compelled Teach First to closely re-examine their approach in order to prepare for expansion to other cities where there was significant graduate interest. In 2005, Teach First received a significant PR and financial boost when the then Chancellor Gordon Brown announced in his budget speech that Teach First was to receive some of the first two/three years start up funding required to establish itself in each new city.


Teach First has now expanded to Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham with plans for Liverpool in 2008 and Leeds and Sheffield in 2009. Wigdortz explains that Teach First will retain a national model and programme while smaller regions will benefit from different support mechanisms, “We recruit nationally, and we want Teach First to be like Deloitte, Accenture… Where people feel like they’re part of one organisation, there’s a big core in the organisation, they’re going to get great leadership development, and that there are national standards, we bring people together to make them feel part of a national cohort.”


There are also sound financial reasons for schools to participate in Teach First. Schools pay Teach First a small deposit plus an affordable amount per term for each graduate teacher, which covers recruitment, training and support to participants. Teach First is highly competitive with alternative recruitment methods such as the use of agency staff. The scheme has therefore provided an effective, though possibly short-term, solution to the shortage of teachers. In 2007, a number of countries including Israel and Estonia, have expressed an interest in the programme. With Mckinsey’s help, Teach First and Teach for America are investigating how the two organisations should respond. Wigdortz sees any future project taking the form of an international secretariat, rather than Teach First expanding and being run from London. This is primarily because he feels the model should be adapted to a country’s unique education, socio-economic and political context. Over 800 graduates have now been placed in London secondary schools. The first cohort graduated in Summer 2005 and have embarked on the next stage of the Teach First journey as ambassadors of the programme.


In 2005, having achieved considerable recognition from government and obtained some of the funding necessary to expand into new cities, Teach First faced its biggest challenge yet. As Wigdortz describes it, “One issue has been what our relationship with government should be. How should we work with government while keeping our independence and allowing us to make the important policy decisions for the charity.”