Brett Wigdortz founded Teach First in 2002. Teach First encourages graduates to start their working lives as teachers, committing to a minimum of 2 years working in the most challenging schools. It is now the UK’s largest graduate recruiter. After 15 years as CEO, Brett will be leaving Teach First at the end of this year.
The idea for Teach First came out of a consultancy project. I was working at McKinsey as a junior management consultant at the time and our project was to look at how businesses could help education in London. I realised the biggest problem the schools had was that there were not enough teachers, and they had a lack of leaders.
Our timing was lucky because people were looking for new ideas. Things were pretty bad in London schools in 2002, so there was a lot of openness to new ways of doing things. We were able to attract people’s interest and focus, and at that point [Prime Minister] Tony Blair and his team really wanted new and creative things to look at in education.
If you’re a teacher, you’re a leader. You’re leading 30 kids, your job isn’t just to regurgitate information, it’s actually to lead these kids to success, so I think every teacher from their first day needs to think of themselves as a leader. That’s how we want our people to think of themselves, and we select people on the basis of their leadership qualities.
We’ve always been focused on building a brand. From day one we’ve said: we’re not just going into teaching, we’re Teach First, which is very vision based, focused on low income kids, focused on reducing the attainment gaps, focused on recruiting leaders.
The most important thing is to think big. You need to be constantly pushing for bigger results, and if people say negative things just keep working through, not giving up too quickly. A lot’s possible if you get people aligned around a common goal.
To get money from business, you need to talk their language. It helped that I had a business background. Businesses like to see data, so we always provide lots of data showing the impact they’re having.
Build for where you are going, not for where you are. Our internal operations were always a step behind the rest of the organisation, because we were growing so fast. As you grow you need different systems in place and we were always building systems for where we were rather than where we were going, whether it was HR, finance, IT or facilities.
We should have got to places like Grimsby and Hull and Blackpool earlier. We started in London, and were too slow to move beyond that. It also took us too long to go to primary schools.
The next big step for Teach First is building this real leadership movement where we have thousands of leaders who’ll become head teachers and change the country from much more senior roles. It’s taken about 15 years to get to that place, but now many of them are there, which is really cool.
Teach First has totally moved beyond me as an individual. After 15 years, I think it’s a mature organisation. It’s like a teenager going off to university. It’s its own thing now. I honestly think there’s so many leaders in Teach First. It’s about building strong leadership around you and a strong brand. I think Teach First has that. Teach First will be fine after I leave.
Cause & Effect is a series from Hope, in which leading figures who have been involved in building and promoting good causes tell us what they’ve learned from their experiences. Interview by Michael Isaacs.