What we can learn from Teach First?


Selectivity is the route to attracting and recruiting good teachers.

In 2001, a McKinsey consultant pitched an idea to improve teacher recruitment. His colleagues, and ministers at the Department of Education and Skills laughed at him. In 2011, the House of Commons Education Committee was briefed to consult on the issue of how to attract outstanding candidates to the teaching profession. In its final report, it mentioned Teach First 35 times. What changed?

Teach First is one of the success stories of the last decade in education in England. Nationally, the ratio of applicant to places for teacher training is 2:1; in the world’s best school systems, it is 7:1 or more; Teach First has achieved 7:1. In 2011, it was rated outstanding in 44 categories out of 44 by Ofsted for its overall provision. Within a decade, it has gained cross-party political support and increased its government funding to £34 million, growing from 200 candidates in 2002 to 2000 candidates annually by 2015. By 2020, there is political support to expand this to 5000 places a year, which would mean half of all trainee teachers in disadvantaged schools would be on Teach First. Importantly, these teachers would not have gone into teaching through other routes. What lessons for our education system can we learn from its precipitous rise?

The success of Teach First in England, Teach For America in the US, and 24 other similar programs globally, offers a route to improving our system of teacher recruitment. Like many successful ideas, it was first ignored, then scorned, and is still being fought in some quarters; but for the most part, it has won.

Raise the bar: Improve recruitment through selectivity

 ‘As a starting point, we believe there may be much to be learned from the selection processes of Teach First’.

The myth that Teach First’s success explodes is that recruiting top talent into teaching in tough schools is impossible. It has shown the path to increasing applicants per place: selectivity. Its high status, prestige and brand identity is compelling for prospective teachers, as thousands of graduates have experienced and as CEO Brett Wigdortz explains:

‘We had to completely transform perceptions. Teaching in a school in challenging circumstances had to become the most prestigious and well-thought of graduate job out there.’

We knew this was possible. Other countries had already made the change – Finland, Singapore and South Korea perceive teaching through this high-prestige prism.’

Our value proposition was completely different: ‘Make a difference’ (appealing to the heart) and ‘Gain distinctive recognised skills’ (appealing to the head).

What I’ve seen over the past decade time and time again is that the best British graduates want to make a difference and are far less cynical than people believe. ‘

The 2008 Ofsted report on Teach First noted that ‘the program recruited highly motivated graduates with outstanding personal qualities and strong subject expertise. More emphasis than in many other initial teacher training courses is given to the personal and intellectual qualities successful candidates are expected to demonstrate with the result that these are particular strengths of the trainees’. In 2010 the DfE paper ‘The case for change’ drew the lessons of Teach First for the entire profession: to ‘draw exclusively from the highest achieving part of the graduate population, and select on the basis not only of academic achievement in the main subject, but also literacy, numeracy and inter-personal skills’.

So, selectivity can be a pathway to improving teacher recruitment nationally. Teach First’s full-day Assessment Centre with evidence-based competency interview, group case study exercise, mock-teaching lesson and self-evaluation is up there with the most rigorous recruitment systems in the world. Strong references, a 2:1 degree minimum and subject knowledge tests also play their part.

What Brett Wigdortz realised is that graduates want challenge, independence, feedback, progression, prestige and the chance to have a meaningful impact; Teach First gave them what they were looking for. Strikingly, early on Teach First’s second year of existence in 2003, when the Teaching Agency encouraged him to take 250 from 900 applications, he refused to lower the bar and kept to ‘a strict standard of excellence’ (p152).

The best education systems attract top talent into teaching. They recruit from the top 10% of cohort in higher education; England recruits from the top 66% of the cohort. ‘England is clearly lagging behind its international peers with regard to the number of applications per place’: the Government, as the Commons Education Committee states, ‘could learn important lessons from the marketing and advertising strategy of Teach First, which has succeeded in raising the profile of teaching amongst top graduates’.

Teaching as a whole could become one of the most prestigious professions in England. The path to that is rigorous selectivity. As recent research suggests, Teach First is ‘not a miracle cure, but it is a catalyst’ for teacher recruitment.

However, Teach First must still improve its training and retention to become truly world-class. In the words of the CEO, ‘we know that this still isn’t good enough.’ It has yet to fully answer the questions: ‘what is great teaching?’ and ‘what makes great training?’ Ensuing blog posts will address them.

Here are the Ofsted reports in 2008 and 2011. The 2010 Government paper The Case For Change has 14 mentions of Teach First. The Education Committee’s report on Great Teaching: attracting, training and retaining the best has 35. CEO Brett Wigdortz’s book is here: Success Against The Odds. A snapshot of Ofsted’s report is below (a rating of 1 is outstanding):


About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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9 Responses to What we can learn from Teach First?

  1. Great post here Joe, it summarises really well on the reports you have mentioned. What strikes me is how we have heard so much about TF wanting to draw from other industries and not just stick to grad recruitment. I wonder how many of the 2000 will be fresh from uni and if the proportion will be the same as now

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