Craig Dearden-Phillips: Why Teach First is a triumph

Brett Wigdortz overcame all the opposition and proved that brave new ideas can succeed in this sector, writes our columnist

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

Twelve years ago a 28-year-old American working in London for the management firm McKinsey walked into a failing secondary school. There was no sense of order, control or purpose. In fact, he couldn't believe this was Britain.

That moment changed his life forever. He decided that day that his purpose was to help to bridge the attainment gap in the UK. This crystallised into a plan to bring the brightest and best graduates into the classroom to provide the kind of leadership missing in so many schools. Indeed, he wanted teaching - not banking or management consultancy - to be the career of choice for our young high-achievers.

Now, as chief executive of Teach First, Brett Wigdortz has written a wonderful book, Success Against the Odds, which tells the story of his organisation, which now has 7,000 applicants each year for its 1,000 graduate teacher placements and is the UK's biggest graduate employer.

But success did not come easy. The idea for Teach First was laughed out of the room by his colleagues. It then spent nearly two years being kicked into touch by just about every funder and government committee that it went to. After one meeting in 2003, packed with stony-faced education experts, Wigdortz was told by a minister: "I'm afraid this isn't the right time. Maybe in the future something like this might work'."

But instead of going away with his tail between his legs, Wigdortz and his team went back to the minister and asked what it would take to get a 'yes'. Earlier, they were offered the chance to provide assistants, rather than proper teachers. This ran against the central vision of Teach First, so Wigdortz had said no. This time, however, he made some tactical concessions that resulted in the scheme eventually receiving government backing.

What perhaps makes Success Against the Odds exceptional is the author's frank recollection of everything he got wrong. From the outside, Teach First looks like a textbook glory story; but from the inside, it contained all the horrors of any growing organisation - such as an early chief executive appraisal in which a senior colleague said: "My image of Brett is that he is a cancer on what could be a great organisation."

Three lessons emerge from the Teach First story. First, be willing to take forward new ideas against established interests - today's weirdness is tomorrow's orthodoxy. Second, never compromise on your central vision, but do bring your opponents onside by taking their concerns on board. Third, you can take fabulous ideas to scale without killing or diluting them in the process. Teach First could have played safe by staying small: instead, it went for it and has changed the status of teaching in this country.

In difficult times, this book is a refreshing, funny and inspiring read about a third sector success story. Buy it and enjoy.

Contact Craig, who writes in a personal capacity, at www.stepping-out.biz

Craig Dearden-Phillips is managing director of Stepping Out and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Suffolk

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