This month Teach First Founder and CEO Brett Wigdortz stands down after 15 years. We spoke to him about the successes of the charity and what we might learn from its community of ambassadors.
Before founding Teach First, you were a management consultant working at McKinsey and Company with little experience of the education sector. What made you decide on such a radical change?
I started a management consultant project about how businesses could help education in London, and got really excited about the impact it could have in changing young people’s lives. Initially, I thought I would do it for a six-month leave of absence, but I ended up leaving McKinsey for good after the first year and have been doing it ever since.
One of Teach First’s achievements has been creating a community of Teach First ambassadors. Notably, this group includes our own Chief Executive, Josh MacAlister. Why did you place such an emphasis on this community and how far do you think we will see them go in your lifetime?
This is the major part of Teach First’s key Theory of Change. It’s not just about placing teachers; it is about creating a lifetime movement of leaders who will change society. Getting people to teach for two years is a major part of becoming those agents of change. Over my lifetime I hope they will go everywhere. We have 10,000 now and so many of them are doing amazing things as you can see with Josh at Frontline.
In June, Stephanie Peacock was the first Teach First ambassador to become a Member of Parliament. Did you imagine this would be the case in 2002?
So many of our people are interested in politics and want to help others so it seems natural that Teach First would have people who would want to go into politics and this may well be the same for Frontline. I think it’s a great thing to have more politicians who have been teaching in low income schools. I certainly hope that in years to come there will be more Teach First ambassadors becoming MPs, government ministers and entering other roles where they can really make a difference.
What advice would you give to Frontline on how to ensure our alumni network – the Frontline Fellowship – achieves the same success?
One of the most important things you need to do is ask what lens you are using to view the whole programme. It is easy to just think ‘we are recruiting teachers’ or ‘we are recruiting social workers’ and that is great but you won’t change the world like that. Alternatively, if your lens is ‘we want to build a movement of leaders who are going to change the lives of young people in this country’ you can work backwards from this. To change the lives of young people, you need to have successful social workers and teachers, but you should not forget that end goal.
Do you have any advice or tips for our fellows who are interested in setting up their own initiatives?
I think the most important thing is to believe in yourself and not give up. Social workers and teachers already have a lot of experience in dealing with difficult moments and working really hard. At the end of the day, it is much better to have a mediocre idea and work really hard on it than to have a great idea but give up at the first hurdle.
Arguably one of the most important things Teach First has achieved is transforming the graduate market. There are now a number of organisations following Teach First’s path of recruiting top graduates into the public sector. Was this one of your original aims when setting up Teach First?
Thinking about this now, I never thought this would happen. I remember when Josh first came to me when he was still one of our teachers and said he wanted to do something for social work. At the time I thought it was never going to work. Teaching seemed unique because everyone has experienced a teacher and everyone has been a student, whereas this isn’t the same for social workers and police officers. However, I was wrong and this has definitely been incredibly exciting and a huge bonus of Teach First.
What are you planning on doing after stepping down as the CEO of Teach First?
I am definitely taking a three-month holiday! Broadly, I know I want to be involved in more of a start-up organisation but am still torn between a few different ideas. I know I want to do something disruptive that can make a big change.