How Teach First Is Tackling Educational Disadvantage in Britain's Schools

17/11/2011 15:01 GMT | Updated 17/01/2012 10:12 GMT

As Children In Need kicks off today, we are once again reminded of the disadvantaged young people in the UK who do not have the same life chances as their more privileged peers.

At Teach First our focus is on education, and the power of education to change these children's lives.

We live in a nation where the link between family income and educational attainment is greater than in almost any other developed country - where 96% of young people educated in independent schools progress to university, compared to only 16% of pupils eligible for free school meals; where children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may start school at age five on a reasonably even footing, will begin to diverge dramatically from their peers in terms of attainment.

Educational disadvantage is a complex and deeply-rooted issue. It looks different depending on the region, town, school and classroom you are in. In every school in the most deprived areas of the country each pupil will have differing barriers to their educational attainment - whether that's limited access to resources such as books or the internet or simply not having breakfast before arriving at school each day.

It would be easy enough to write off these children, believing that because of their background they will never be able to achieve as highly as children from wealthier families, but we know that change is possible.

It would be naïve to say that there is one 'quick-fix' solution but I believe however, that within a school, the single most important thing which can make a difference to a pupil's future is access to effective teachers.

I have seen proof of this in our partner schools. At the Business Academy Bexley, for example, as a result of a Year Seven reading internship trialled by a dedicated teacher, one pupil went from a reading age of nine years three months to 13 years in under a year. At Uxbridge High School, in 2003, just 29% of students had achieved five or more A* to C grades at GCSE - or 17% with English and maths. As a result of talented staff being led by an inspirational headteacher, this year 90% of Uxbridge students gained five or more A* to C grades at GCSE, or 60% with English and Maths. The school was also rated Outstanding by Ofsted.

I founded Teach First in 2002 to create, equip and mobilise a movement of leaders with a life-long commitment to raising the achievement, aspirations and access to opportunity of children from low socio-economic backgrounds. We select outstanding graduates to teach and lead in schools in challenging circumstances for a minimum of two years and then work to ensure that our ambassadors (graduates of the two-year Leadership Development Programme) continue to drive the systemic change required to end educational disadvantage, whether that's in the classroom or not.

I believe that Teach First has proved that change is possible - in 2002, once of the biggest battles I had to fight was to win hearts and minds - most people believed that there was no way the UK's best graduates would want to teach in schools in challenging circumstances. They also believed that there was no way those schools, and the pupils in them, would accept these graduates even if they did.

Almost 10 years on I am pleased to say that these critics have been proved wrong. This year Teach First was one of the most popular choices for graduates, with 6000 applying for over 750 places. This September, those who got through the rigorous application process started teaching in 350 partner schools in six regions across the country. They all want to make a difference and most stay in teaching long-term. In July this year, the quality of Teach First's training was rated 'outstanding' by Ofsted in all 44 categories assessed.

This Saturday, at our annual conference, we will see our movement in action. The event will bring together nearly 1000 people who are committed to tackling educational disadvantage either in the classroom, in schools, or at a system level (in politics, business or civil service for example).

There will be participants and ambassadors who are currently teaching in schools in challenging circumstances, including some of the 378 ambassadors who have gone on to secure leadership positions within schools. There will also be representatives of the 45% of ambassadors who are no longer in teaching who are now working to address educational disadvantage in other ways, such as through social enterprises that work to widen access to university, working as policy makers in the Department for Education or through working in national and international education charities.

They will have the opportunity to share ideas, hear from inspirational experts, attend professional development sessions and explore what more they could be doing to make a real impact.

As we head towards our 10th Anniversary next year, and make plans for our next 10 years, the conference will also mark the next step in the development of our 2022 strategy. Our vision is for a society where no child's educational success is limited by their socio-economic background, where there is not a gap between the aspirations, achievement and access to opportunities of those from low socio-economic backgrounds and those from wealthier families.

We cannot achieve this alone. We've changed some pupils' lives, we've been part of changing some schools and now we need to change society. Businesses, government, parents, schools and charities need to work together to tackle the attainment gap, to ensure that one day every child in the UK will have access to a great education and the life chances that come with this.