Review - Lessons in how to go against the grain

9th November 2012 at 00:00

In four years Brett Wigdortz transformed himself from a fast-food delivery boy to the youngest chief executive of a top-100 graduate employer in the UK. The organisation he now leads is Teach First, a charity credited with changing the perception of teaching and encouraging thousands of highly qualified young graduates to join the profession.

But a decade ago things were very different: Wigdortz encountered resistance at every level in his attempt to set up Teach First. His book, Success Against the Odds, tells the story of those difficult days.

It starts with a visit Wigdortz made to a "sad, depressing" London secondary as part of his work as a management consultant. Rather than aspiration, he found apathy. Pupils told him lessons were a waste of time; a teacher said the best thing he could do was stay away and "send us money". Yet the visit was a "call to arms". Wigdortz had only been asked to find out how businesses could help schools in challenging circumstances, but when a headteacher told him to stop firms poaching the best graduates, Teach First was conceived.

He took inspiration from a similar US programme, Teach for America, but felt Britain needed a different approach. Wigdortz wanted an emphasis on leadership skills and collaboration, to prevent participants from being seen as outsiders attempting to rescue the education system. When he presented the idea to the business community, a "glazed look" formed in the eyes of those he met with, he recalls. Civil servants bombarded him with bureaucracy; education experts were sceptical.

Eventually people began to get on board, such as former schools minister Andrew Adonis: Wigdortz struggled to look up his telephone number after an internet porn filter told him "Adonis" was a banned word.

The book is divided into five sections on how to "achieve the impossible". But this isn't a dry business manual. Personal stories reveal how Teach First participants have helped to transform the lives of vulnerable children. And it is packed full of gossipy anecdotes, such as the fact that Gordon Brown kept referring to Teach First as Teach for Britain, which he preferred, and how the programme became caught up in the tensions between Mr Brown and Tony Blair.

Wigdortz is honest about the mistakes he has made. In a "David Brent moment of imbecility", he arranged a public airing of views about his performance for staff, in which they said he was "diabolically bad". But this is a fascinating read for anyone interested in how political decisions about education are made - and what it takes to go against the grain of the establishment.

Success Against the Odds by Brett Wigdortz, Short Books, #163;8.99.

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