A question which organisation is the biggest recruiter of Oxbridge undergraduates? You might expect the answer would be Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers or a big City finance house. In fact, it is Teach First, the education charity set up to woo the country's brightest graduates into teaching in the country's most disadvantaged schools – if and only if they have not followed the traditional teacher-training path to the classroom. Currently, it mops up around 8 per cent of graduates from the two universities and is set for a massive expansion. Now it is planning to double its numbers.
It also appears in seventh place in the list of the top 100 graduate recruiters in the whole country. Teach First aims to give top-qualified graduates who have not studied for a teaching certificate or an education degree the chance to spend two years teaching in a disadvantaged area.
The idea, at the very least, is that it develops leadership and communication skills which will help to ease their way to a high-flying job in industry. In practice, though, more than half remain in teaching. The minimum requirement for a graduate to be accepted on the programme is the stuff of Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove's dreams. Candidates have to have a 2:1 degree in a subject aligned to a national curriculum subject, 300 Ucas points (the equivalent of three B grades at A-level), and a grade-C or equivalent pass in GCSE maths and English.
Mr Gove made it clear that he wanted to raise the bar for entry into the profession – a move that heaped criticism upon his head when it was realised that the Conservatives' own maths tsar, Carol Vorderman, would have been barred from teaching if this proposal had already been in effect. Teachers' leaders talked of how some of the brightest young graduates suffered from an inability to communicate, whereas those with lesser degree passes could be inspirational in the classroom.
Brett Wigdortz, the founder of Teach First and the inspiration behind the scheme, has some sympathy with the critics. "We're very selective as to who we take in," he says. "We only take on 12 per cent of those who apply to us. We look for people who have competence at communication skills and leadership." He adds: "I think it is too simplistic to say if you get a 2:1 you're a better teacher than someone with a 2:2. I wouldn't say that at all. Really, I'm very much in favour of getting the best teacher into the job."
There is a rigorous selection process, designed to weed out those who may drop out before they set foot in the classroom. This includes attending an assessment centre where they are asked to deliver a seven-minute lesson in a national curriculum subject, and a debriefing session in which they are tested on how they think, solve problems, express solutions and interact with other people. For those who make it, there is a six-week training programme before they start teaching.
"We give them a lot of training and a lot of support throughout the two years that they are with us," Mr Wigdortz adds. "There is a lot of peer support for them." Teach First was launched in 2002 and was designed to improve the quality of teaching in the inner cities. It states as its aim that it is a national education charity founded in 2002 that works to "address educational disadvantage by transforming exceptional graduates into effective, inspirational teachers and leaders in all fields".
"Teach First targets high-calibre, highly motivated graduates who would not normally consider a career in teaching, and places them in challenging schools for at least two years."
The scheme started off solely in inner-London secondary schools and – within a few years – exam bosses revealed that the rate of improvement in exam results (particularly at GCSE) was higher in the area than in any other part of the country. There need not necessarily be a correlation between the two, but it is worth noting the verdict delivered by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog: "Teach First trainees made a positive contribution to the schools visited," the inspectors said. "Most schools were open to trainees' ideas for improvement and gave them leeway to implement changes. Participants remaining in their schools for a second year or more were starting to have a notable impact, for example, in transforming underperforming departments. At least one of the schools visited attributed a rapid improvement in its standards almost entirely to the contribution of Teach First participants."
The charity receives about a third of its funding from central government and receives a fee from schools who take on one of its teachers, equivalent to 15 per cent of their salary. Mr Wigdortz, an American who was formerly a consultant with McKinsey & Company theorising about the delivery of education, reckons this is a sign of how much the schools rate the teachers they are supplied. "After all, if they're willing to pay for them," he points out. Figures show around half of those who sign up for the programme stay on after the initial two-year period for which they are contracted. The charity is currently celebrating its first head...
Both the Coalition Government and its Labour predecessor have backed the scheme. Under Andrew (Lord) Adonis's reign as the Schools minister, it expanded into other cities such as Birmingham and Manchester.
The numbers taken in by the programme have doubled from 265 in 2005 to 560 this year. They will rise again to 730 in 2011 and 1,140 by 2012-13.
A £4m grant given to Teach First by Mr Gove almost immediately after the election of the new government will give it the green light to open in schools in every region of the country – and allow it to progress to primary schools, too. By 2013-14, it expects to have 300 graduates in primary schools.
It will also initiate research as to whether it would be possible to place teachers in rural and coastal schools suffering from educational disadvantage rather than just concentrate on the inner cities. "There are three schools in Penzance, Cornwall, that meet our criteria of educational disadvantage for getting a Teach First teacher into a school," Mr Wigdortz says. "We've also started to expand out of the city – to Basildon in Essex. Children of poor families just don't get the quality education they deserve. With all the social mobility stuff we talk about, nothing's going to happen unless we get the top-quality teachers into the schools where they are taught."
TEACH FIRST: A HISTORY
2002: Charity founded and supplies graduates to inner-London schools, insisting they should work in the classroom for at least two years. All those taken on have to have at least a 2:1 degree, scored 300 Ucas points (the equivalent of three B-grades passes at A-level) and have an A*- to C-grade pass in both maths and English.
2005: Increases the number of graduates it takes on and considers further expansion to Birmingham and Manchester.
2010: Now operates in five regions across England: London, the North-west, East and West Midlands and Yorkshire, with 560 graduates on its books. It reaches 200,000 pupils in 220 schools.
The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, announces a £4m grant to allow it to expand into primary schools.
2012: Teach First numbers will have expanded to 1,140.
2014: Teach First graduates will be working in one in three educationally disadvantaged secondary schools – and have 300 primary school teachers on its books.
Feasibility study into whether to move into rural and coastal areas which fit its bill of having more than 50 per cent of pupils living in poor homes or where schools fall in the lowest 30 per cent of the country for GCSE results.
From trainee to head of year
Janet Cullen, the head teacher of Lea Valley High School, is in no doubt as to the difference Teach First has made to her school. Among the first to use the scheme, she has had 27 Teach First graduates since taking her first batch in 2004. 14 are still there, despite being required to spend only two years in the classroom.
She singled out Joanna Tate, a history graduate from Cambridge University who – after six years at the school – has been promoted to head of year, for special mention. "What was important was that she was young – the students could identify with her," she says. "They thought, 'If she can do that, I could do that,' and couldn't see any reason why they couldn't go to university to study history, too."
When Janet Cullen first arrived at the school 15 years ago, only 13 per cent of its pupils achieved five A*- to C-grade passes at GCSE. Now that figure has quadrupled and – for good measure – 42 per cent of the youngsters still achieve that benchmark when maths and English are included.
The school serves a disadvantaged area of the borough of Enfield – only schools of this kind qualify to take Teach First graduates. Nearly half of its pupils are on free school meals and a similar number are from ethnic-minority backgrounds.
Several things have combined to help the school to emerge from its low base in 1995. First, it now occupies brand-new buildings courtesy of the Private Finance Initiative promoted by Labour (it got in before the Coalition Government's squeeze on spending), which sends a message to pupils about the value of education.
It has also been designated a specialist sports college – taking part in sport has given pupils leadership skills and the confidence to have higher aspirations, according to the head. Third, an innovative new curriculum has meant youngsters can concentrate on doing their maths and English GCSEs in the first year of study (as well as a couple of other subjects) and taking the rest of their exams in what was traditionally the second year of GCSE study.
"One of the reasons children don't succeed is a lack of esteem," Janet Cullen says. "If they don't get any results until August of the second year, you can see them getting into a slough of despond. Taking them early shows them what they can achieve."
The teaching, though, is vital to the success story which has seen its pupil numbers soar from 640 to 1,350 – and its sixth form expand from just 48 pupils to 242. That is where Teach First comes in. "Teaching is a difficult job," she says, "and Teach First is sort of catapulting them in at the deep end. But it gives them fantastic support and gives them an almost evangelical zeal. They're encouraged to think they're going to go into schools and change people's lives." And they do.