In recent decades, entrepreneurs have turned their energy, skills and ideas to all sorts of problems in society, from providing low cost banking, to defeating malaria, to reducing homelessness. More recently, many of them have moved into the issue of education, particularly for children from the poorest backgrounds where some successful solutions have already begun to have a transformative impact on children’s life chances.
In the UK alone, there are 3.7 million children growing up in poverty. They are less likely to do well at school, go on to higher education and fulfilling careers and lead happy, healthy lives. Only a third of these children achieve the minimum expected academic standards, compared to two-thirds of their wealthier peers. In 2002, I founded Teach First on the belief that this situation is unfair, unjust, and unsustainable. Since then we have recruited, trained and supported a movement of over 7,500 teachers to work in more than 1,000 schools and become long-term leaders who will help create wider change in addressing educational disadvantage. We now work in all areas of England and are growing our presence in Wales.
Teach First, amongst other innovations and interventions, has had a revolutionary effect in some parts of the country. In 2002, when we started in the capital, London was the worst place for children from low-income communities to go to school – there were literally no outstanding schools with a majority of children from low-income backgrounds. Since then, it has become the best place in the UK to study, with children from poor backgrounds doing better than their wealthier peers in other areas of the country. By 2011 London schools moved from being the lowest performing in England to the highest performing and now have the highest proportion of schools rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.
In 2002, only a handful of top university graduates went on to teach in low-income state schools. Now in 2015, we have become the largest recruiter of top university graduates in the country.
However, when I set out to create Teach First, I found that there were more people who wanted to tell me why we would fail, rather than why we could and should succeed. Because a project like this hadn’t worked in the past, it was clear to some that it wouldn’t work in the future.
This is the curse of the entrepreneur. Brilliant teachers will recognise this challenge when they too try and find new ways to overcome this problem in the classroom. The best teachers I have seen in the hundreds of schools I have visited are the ones who have an entrepreneurial spirit. Someone who sees exciting challenges instead of barriers; who has an ingrained belief that they can and will change the status quo, even when others around them have lost hope; the ones who aren’t afraid to take risks even though the stakes are high.
For example, one London school, with almost all its children from low-income backgrounds, which was recently rated outstanding in every category by Ofsted, starts the day at 8am with a class-wide book club to get children really engaged with reading. The same school invites a range of external organisations ranging from businesses to charities and beyond, to lunch with the whole school once a week.
I once visited an outstanding classroom in a low-income community in India where 106 nine and ten-year-olds were taught by one teacher with impeccably high standards who helped the students to lead their own differentiated learning in a way that involved constant rotation of roles, which was choreographed meticulously and got amazing results.
We have also seen many teachers innovate outside the classroom. While most of our teachers continue to teach in the long term, we also support those who choose to tackle educational inequality in different sectors of society. In 2013 we set up our own Innovation Unit which exists to find and nurture great ideas to help make the education system fairer. Each year the Innovation Unit works in partnership with a small number of these social enterprises, which we believe will make the most difference to the lives of young people from low-income communities in the UK. Through a tailored package of support and advice, we work with them to help accelerate their growth and impact.
There are currently 38 social enterprises led by graduates of our programme, focusing on a diverse range of areas including literacy provision, skills for working life, support for pupils at risk of exclusion, and the recruitment and training of children's social workers.
Teachers have a critical role though, not only in being the innovator, but also encouraging entrepreneurs within the classroom. After all, the people who are best placed to tackle educational inequality are arguably those who have experienced it first hand and have become successful despite those challenges. Within the competing demands of a school day and full curriculum, lighting a creative spark and building resilience within pupils, might be the best innovation of all.