As an American twenty-something making a killing working in London, Brett Wigdortz might not be who we would expect to radically reinvigorate state education in England. On a pro bono project with management consultants McKinsey he found himself visiting a failing school in the capital which he described as “a prison of low expectations”.
In a passing comment about how big business in The City could support secondary education, a head teacher flippantly suggested “stop stealing all the best graduates”. Wigdortz set about developing Teach First, a prestigious and high intensity route into teaching that would attract the best graduates and, after a 6 week boot camp, parachute them directly into the front of classrooms in the most deprived areas of the country to figure out how to teach. In his book Success Against The Odds he clarifies what he means by “best”:
“Not best as in best grades, or best in terms of university background, but best in terms of leadership potential”.
Many established educators objected to the disruptive, almost offensive, scheme when it launched in 2002. However Teach First has changed the landscape of the relatively static education sector and has become the biggest graduate employer in the country.
Like Wigdortz, I’m from a family of teachers so I’m always struck by the parallels between education and medicine, teachers and doctors, those with poor prospects and those with a poor prognosis. For me, the most striking similarity is that doctors and teachers in the UK work for highly political state organisations and have to try to navigate political issues in order to create change that benefits their public. How did Wigdortz manage to do it? In his book Success Against The Odds he outlines 5 lessons he had to learn.
1. Personal commitment
5. Everyone uniting within a leadership mentality
The way Wigdortz described Number 3 surprised me:
“The importance of high standards in attracting and motivating great people … the value of a focus on excellence to make change happen.”
In a stretched system like the NHS it can feel like staff don’t have time for change. Often it takes all their effort just to keep the show on the road. It’s tempting for leaders to say “it won’t take long” or “just get as many as you can”. Wigdortz argues that this is no way to lead change. We get high quality people on board when we promise to do something of high quality, something that deserves hard work. That’s exactly how Teach First attracts the best graduates: it promises that teacher training will be really hard but really worthwhile. So maybe that’s one way to liberate the NHS from the prison of low expectations: lead through excellence.