If you were looking for someone qualified to lead an initiative to improve the standard of education for under-privileged children, Brett Wigdortz would not be that man. At least, 10 years ago he was not that man — he did not have any relevant skills or experience and he was only 28.
At the time Wigdortz, who grew up in New Jersey, was a junior management consultant with American firm McKinsey, on placement in London. He was part of a team investigating ways to improve educational results in London’s schools.
He was shocked by what he saw. “In some of the worst schools, it didn’t feel like there was a whole lot of learning happening. They didn’t have high expectations for the kids — it seemed that there was just a containment strategy, how to keep kids off the streets rather than ensuring that they really gained the knowledge they needed.”
Wigdortz’s team came up with an idea — a programme which would attempt to recruit the high-flying graduates who were flocking into the City, and divert them into low-achieving schools, to provide inspiration and leadership.
But Wigdortz clearly did not have the profile to lead such an initiative. Before McKinsey he had been sacked from his job as a delivery man for the Cluck-U Chicken restaurant chain. And if you were looking for experience in the field of education, he had none, although his parents were teachers.
“I had never led anything before. I was a junior consultant, I had never been an entrepreneur. I think what I had was this belief which was really important, and probably a pushy nature,” he says.
However, it was clear from an early stage that he was the only one with the passion to put the programme into action — and that if he did not take it forward, the initiative was likely to flounder.
Ten years later, Teach First, the independent charity he founded, is set to become Britain’s largest graduate recruiter. There are currently 1,635 Teach First graduates working in 519 primary and secondary schools around the country and the organisation has been classified by Ofsted as outstanding in every one of its categories.
Wigdortz, softly spoken and a still youthful-looking 39, looks out over the River Thames from the plush offices of Teach First as he explains his rationale.
It is a simple one. “Any organisation needs to attract the top talent, and then needs to focus them on the strategy and the goals. It seemed to me that what the kids needed in order to make the most of themselves was great leadership. That’s what made me write the business plan on how to attract the best people to come into schools.”
A business plan was one thing but Wigdortz also needed support from business, he needed the go-ahead from government and he needed to persuade the high-flying graduates whom he was looking to attract not just to come into the educational system, but to do so in some of the country’s most challenging schools.
At certain points it seemed his mission might be doomed. His bold, direct approach did not always endear him to senior civil servants, and Tony Blair’s administration, after at first sounding enthusiastic, decided to abandon the idea.
(Blair’s son Nicky later became a Teach First teacher, and the former Prime Minister has praised the organisation for putting young people into situations where they have to “develop a significant amount of leadership and courage”.)
Even when he faced government rejection, Wigdortz’s belief was unshaken. “I did always think it could work. Probably the worst point was when the education ministry turned us down. But even then I had some good mentors with me and we kept thinking that there must be a way around this.”
The results have been documented in a book which Wigdortz has written about the Teach First project to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the organisation. He has not only managed to persuade top graduates to apply — the courses are vastly over-subscribed. And he is happy that, despite the fact that Teach First trainees begin teaching in tough schools within weeks of signing up, that they are equipped to do so.
“There’s lots of ways teachers get trained. The way ours work is they do a six-week intensive course in the summer and during the two years of the course, they get lots of support and training. In fact, our teachers get more training than most these days.”
It is true that the graduates have been attracted to the scheme out of a sense of idealism, but also because acceptance by Teach First looks good on the CV. Wigdortz is reasonably happy with the number of his teachers who stay on in schools, resisting the temptation of better-paid careers — even though 10 years on, nearly half of his first intake have left the education system.
“Our retention rate is fairly similar and maybe slightly better than for other teachers. Ninety per cent of our graduates complete two years and two thirds stay a third. After 10 years, 85 per cent of our intake are still doing some work with low-income schools.”
He adds that after their training is over, it is up to the graduates themselves to decide how they wish to make their contribution to education. If they do not want to stay in teaching full-time, Teach First helps them to become school governors, join a mentoring scheme, or a social entrepreneurship programme. He sees it as a lifetime commitment.
But how does Wigdortz ascertain whether this new breed of teachers is actually having the impact in the classroom that he envisaged 10 years ago? He replies that he sees a steadily improving system in which he believes Teach First staff have played their part.
“We’re recruiting people who wouldn’t have otherwise become teachers. We have just finished our strategy for the next 10 years. It’s about ensuring that children from low-income families leave school with the same level of numeracy as wealthy kids and get the same GCSEs, or at least to reduce the gap.
“Our goal is that every school should be great. The general situation is that some schools in England are very good and some aren’t People should really question why that is normal. Why aren’t more people outraged by this situation? As long as that remains the situation, then there’s a major problem.”
Wigdortz is, however, very encouraged by what he has seen over the past few years. “Most children are leaving school with some academic success, but it’s still not a great system — very few kids from low-income backgrounds are getting the top scores and going to the top universities.”
But he takes inspiration from the success he has already had, and from some fundamental Jewish precepts.
“I’ve grown up with the Jewish idea of tikkun olam. That one of our purposes on this planet is to make things a little better and to move the universe a little closer to perfection. I’ve always thought that maybe I could do something that could make a difference to people’s lives.”
Wigdortz, who is a member of the New North London Synagogue in Finchley, adds: “Part of the Jewish idea is that people have a lot of ability inside them. The fact that our education system isn’t allowing every child to fulfil that potential is a real tragedy.”
Now married and a British citizen, Wigdortz intends to educate his own three children in the state system but has not ruled out a Jewish secondary school. He sees the diversity and variety that comes with free schools and faith schools as generally positive, thought he is not preoccupied with the structure of schools, but rather with what happens inside them.
“I get less excited about the system. You can have free schools that are amazing and free schools that are not good. It comes down to who the teachers are and who the headteacher is. I want to send my kids somewhere where there are good teachers and leaders.”
Wigdortz gives an example of a school which has turned around over the past few years and one pupil who benefited. He recalls: “I met a child at one of my schools who comes from a council estate. He was going to university in Manchester. Five years ago, that school was failing. He told me that his older brother had been to the same school and despite being a lot smarter than him, had been in and out of jail ever since.
"The fact is that if you were at that school a few years ago your chances of getting a university place were next to zero. That’s the kind of difference we are trying to make.”