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Teach First shows how to overcome educational disadvantage

It is testament to the leadership of Teach First that it has been so successful in securing cross-party support, says shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg.

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

This week, the charity Teach First launched the Every Child Can campaign. Two in five children from deprived backgrounds do not reach the expected levels in maths and English by the time they leave school. Every Child Can is about changing this. It’s part of Teach First’s principal vision - to eradicate educational disadvantage so that every child can realise their potential, irrespective of their background.

In 2002 I was the minister for schools at the Department for Education and Skills, as it was then. One of my first decisions as minister was agreeing funding for an initiative called Teach First. When I was approached by Brett Wigdortz, the founder, I knew that his idea held a lot of promise. However, I can’t say I anticipated the success story that Teach First has proven to be. I doubt in his wildest dreams not even Brett imagined the charity would come this far.

The challenge facing Brett and his team was a monumental one. The formula was a simple one, a most noble one. Attract top performing graduates into teaching in the most challenging areas in the country to address the attainment gap - the difference in educational outcomes between children from richer and poorer backgrounds.

In government, Labour’s investment and reform programme in education began to narrow this gap. But of course, the challenge of closing the gap completely remains one of the greatest for the future long term prosperity of our country. It is a testament to the leadership of Teach First that it has been so successful in securing cross-party support. I welcome the fact that all three main political parties remain committed to the charity.

Last year, I spoke at Challenge 2012, a conference held by Teach First to celebrate its tenth anniversary. It was there that it launched the 2022 Impact Goals setting out the changes that it wants to see in education, working with others to achieve these over the next decade. These goals set out a commitment to closing the gap and creating a more equal society. It is a shame on all of our houses that only two in five children from the least well-off backgrounds- those who are eligible for free school meals- achieve the expected level of educational attainment of 5 GCSEs at A*- C (including Maths and English) at 16. Because while qualifications do not control our destiny, educational attainment shapes our prospects and outlooks.

The goals commit Teach First –working in partnership – to playing its part in closing the gap at 11 in reading and writing and at 16 for GCSE results; to increase educational participation rates beyond the compulsory age; to widen access to the most selective universities; and to ensure that all students develop the key strengths that will enable them to become the masters of their own destiny. We should all sign up to achieving these goals. I have given my commitment.

That is why I agreed last week to join the Teach First team and spend an afternoon in Holly Lodge Girls College in Liverpool to deliver an English lesson to Year 9 pupils. The aim of the lesson was to get the Year 9 pupils to understand and to use the art of persuasion. It was a hugely uplifting experience, watching and seeing the pupils crafting and delivering their arguments on the debate about whether or not we should lengthen the school day. These are the skills that young people need as they leave school and college and seek employment and further study. It’s great that the Impact Goals reflect the importance of rigour in maths and English but also that they reflect the crucial focus on resilience and character development and that their teachers are trained to deliver this across the curriculum.

I visit many schools in my day job but to be the teacher for an hour was an incredible insight into the power and influence teachers can have over the aspirations of young people.

Overcoming educational disadvantage is a huge challenge. However, we know the cost of doing nothing. It’s bad for social mobility and ultimately bad for Britain’s economy. Last week shone the spotlight on this challenge as we all sign up for the long journey ahead.