Britain is one of the wealthiest countries in the world — yet our education system is unfair for tens of thousands of children who deserve much better.
I have been working to help change this since 2001 when, as a 27-year-old management consultant who had only been in Britain for a few months, I took what I thought would be a three-month break from supporting the profit margins of banks to look at inner London state schools — at that time some of the lowest performing in England. This project led to me writing the business plan for a new charity — Teach First — which I founded 15 years ago and have led ever since.
When I started this project, I went into a school in London. It was a tough school, serving a tough estate and was in chaos. I spoke to the head teacher, who told me: “The thing you have to realise Brett, is that success with these kids isn’t getting them good grades, it’s not getting them into top universities or into great jobs. Success is keeping them out of jail, keeping them off the streets.”
His was not a Jewish attitude, not one we would want any educator to hold about any children in our community nor any who we know, yet it wasn’t unusual at that point. In 2002, there were no London schools serving predominantly low-income communities that were achieving above the national average. Many otherwise well-intentioned people had simply given up on these children — they had lost the sense of possibility that Judaism teaches us is inherent in every child.
This has changed drastically over the past 15 years. There have been fantastic improvements in many schools across the country and London now is seen as one of the best cities in the world for education in low-income areas. I visited that school again last year and saw young people from the same council estate achieving at the highest levels and going into the best universities, apprenticeships and jobs. Their school and teachers are no longer letting them down.
During this time, we have recruited more than 10,000 teachers for schools in low-income communities across England and Wales, growing to become the largest graduate recruiter in the UK (beating PwC into second place). We have reached more than one million children and helped to create a leadership revolution.
The majority of our alumni (we call them “ambassadors”) have stayed in teaching, most in school leadership roles, and others have remained part of our movement by changing educational norms through roles in the business world, in government and policy, or senior roles in other educational charities. Over the past 10 years, this idea has expanded around the world, including to Israel where Teach First Israel (Chotam) is now the largest graduate recruiter in the country.
Later this year I will be stepping down as CEO to become honorary president and founder and move onto a new challenge elsewhere. The approach of Shavuot, as a festival of learning, has helped to focus my mind on how my Jewish upbringing and values have influenced this journey. Teach First is not a Jewish charity, but the more I think about it, my vision for it has been hugely shaped by my Jewish identity.
People often ask me if being an immigrant made building Teach First more difficult. After all, when we started, I didn’t know anyone in the country, had no idea of societal norms, and wasn’t aware of what was acceptable, or unacceptable behaviour (my wife would say I still don’t).
This outsider-insider mentality has helped many other great Jewish entrepreneurs and leaders through history create transformative change and it was very important for me.
Being an outsider enabled me to create a revolutionary charity that rocked the boat in a way that would have been more difficult for an insider who felt constrained by the normative culture around them.
By not being a member of any political or professional “tribe”, I was able to get cross-party support for the initiative and work closely with teacher unions, university departments of education, businesses, and other charities that often struggle to collaborate. In 2010 and 2015, we were mentioned positively in all three major political party election manifestos.
I remember meeting the head of careers at one of the UK’s oldest universities who sniffed “our graduates have better options available to them than to teach in a comprehensive school — you’ll never get more than a handful”. We are now the largest recruiter at that university.
His words never made sense to me. As Jews, we are taught that teachers are among the greatest leaders in society. Only a powerful leader can help young people succeed in ways that many of them, their families and social networks don’t believe possible.
Of course, a few weeks after celebrating the teaching of Rabbi Akiva at Lag B’Omer, it’s good to remember that the most respected person in most Jewish communities through history was not the businessman, soldier, or farmer, but the rabbi, a word which doesn’t mean priest or leader — it means teacher.
Justice has been a key driver for Teach First — the idea that some young people don’t receive the education they deserve is neither fair for those young people nor the country as a whole. We think it’s fundamentally wrong and unjust that a child from a low-income background in the UK has half the chance of getting good grades at school purely because of the street they were born on. This seems even more important, as we see an increasingly divided society, with communities feeling left behind.
Judaism has always placed huge importance in the transformative power of education. Wherever we were, Jews built schools. And Teach First has always been about the value and power of education not just in itself, but as a key to unlocking wider social mobility, fairness and bringing communities together to help heal the world — tikkun olam.
On this Shavuot I hope all of us can commit to supporting the vision — one that would have been as recognisable to Talmudic rabbis or my shtetl ancestors as it is to us today — that no child’s educational success should be limited by their family background. That is why in my final year we have launched our Challenge the Impossible campaign to highlight the lack of social mobility in this country and call for support so every young person can fulfil their potential.
You can find out more about this campaign at: www.teachfirst.org.uk/challenge-impossible.