In the United Kingdom there are nearly 4 million children living in poverty. This alone has a disproportionate effect on their chances in school, in learning and in life.
In 2002, while working as a management consultant, I was tasked to look into why children from low-income backgrounds were under-performing in London’s schools. What I discovered was shocking. I couldn’t find a single London school with a majority low-income intake that was meeting the national grade averages. It was clear what was needed to turn this around: leadership in these classrooms—and beyond.
This led me to found Teach First—the education and social mobility non-profit that this year celebrates its 15th anniversary. We have a simple but powerful vision—that no child’s educational success should be limited by their background. We find and develop great people to become part of our movement of leaders across schools, education systems, and society who are all working to tackle this issue, starting with our two-year Leadership Development Progamme.
Since 2002, we have scaled rapidly. Our first intake of trainees was 182-strong. Last year, we recruited over 1,400 trainees, making up a quarter of new teachers in low-income schools in England. We’re now one of the U.K.’s largest graduate recruiters, having hired more than 10,000 in total. Collectively they’ve helped support over 1 million pupils, and we now cover almost every area of England and Wales.
Most importantly, however, we now have proof that our approach works. Independent analysis shows our teachers increase pupils’ grades, and are seven times more likely to be in senior school leadership positions than teachers who train via other routes. Beyond teaching, other former trainees are founding social enterprises, leading business engagement with schools, and advocating for change in policymaking.
Teach First has grown at a rate of approximately 20 percent a year, making us one of Britain’s fastest-growing non-profits. As I reflect on the last decade-and-a-half, there are four approaches that stand out as to why we’ve been able to grow so quickly. Many of these are reflected in the Center for Universal Education’s Millions Learning report on scaling up quality education interventions:
- Scaling mentality
Firstly, you need to have a driving need to scale. You need to believe in your vision, commit to making it a reality as quickly as possible, and articulate it in a powerful and compelling manner. This is reinforced in Millions Learning, which finds that, if scaling is the objective, it must be carefully planned for from the start. We’ve been lucky enough to have had incredible supporters who have always believed in our ambition, staying with us throughout our journey.
- Build a big tent
Secondly, you need to build a tent big enough for your ambition. Small-scale interventions can work outside the system, but if you want to make a difference at scale, you need to know how to position yourself as an addition to the system, rather than as a replacement.
We’ve never relied on the support of one political party as administrations change. Having invested in these relationships from the start, we became the only education initiative backed in all the major political parties’ manifestos in recent U.K. general elections.
Vital for us, too, are universities, which are the main lead in teacher recruitment and training. Having the backing of one or two from the beginning allowed others to see how much we valued their expertise.
And the same goes for unions. Some initiatives rightly face skepticism from a reform-weary profession, but being able to secure the early backing of some influential figures helped to facilitate broader acceptance.
Similar lessons were drawn from Millions Learning, which found that broad-based education alliances are critical in bringing all the necessary skillsets, assets, and resources to the table. This includes paying attention to those who might stand to lose from the expansion of new approaches. It is undoubtedly a delicate and intentional balance—working closely with, and being supportive of, the system but not shying away from trying to improve it.
- Perfect versus good
Next you need to ensure you don’t let perfection be the enemy of what’s good. That does not mean accepting substandard activity, nor does it mean you shouldn’t invest in planning. You must ensure you’re making a positive impact, but you must learn as you go, with an approach that accepts some mistakes will be made, and that is flexible enough to adapt.
Data has always been central to our work, helping us see where we’re having the greatest impact and where we are most needed. But it can also be a double-edged sword. If you are beholden to it, you can easily use it to justify inertia; there is always more data around the corner. But by the time all the evidence is available, it may be too late or difficult to implement. As with so much, it’s important to keep this balance.
- Be ready
A great plan, the right mindset and having broad support are all necessary to scale, but sometimes success can also be about being in the right place at the right time (referred to in Millions Learning as “seizing windows of opportunity”). Luck, of-course, has a role to play, but you have to be ready to seize opportunities when they arise and be willing to take risks to make the most of them.
Teach First has benefited from this—we undoubtedly laid some important groundwork, but we also happened to develop during a growing teacher shortage, and at a time when decisionmaking was decentralized to schools and on-the-job teacher training became more accepted. We certainly took advantage of the winds when they blew in our direction.
There have been constraints along the way. Many continue to challenge us. Recruiting enough teachers to meet the demand remains an unwavering focus, as does ensuring that our training prepares participants to both be the best teachers for young people. At the same time, our recruitment and training continues to address educational inequality in the longer term.
Ensuring we have the finances to grow and scale has been difficult, in particular in relation to being ready to respond to opportunities when they arise. But if you believe in your mission, then being intentional and ambitious about your growth is crucial if you truly want to see millions learning.
Esther Care, an education expert at the Brookings Institution, calls the A-F grading system “nonsense.” “Grades are mere proxies for what we value. What we actually value is our children being prepared for the future,” she said. “We need to find ways in educational assessment to convey information about the degree to which they are ready to venture out and to deal constructively with the huge challenges posed by our 21st century.