The rise of the Teach First Empire: Who are Transform society? (Guest blog by Joe Hanley)

Christian Kerr
16 min readMar 2, 2022

I am delighted to present here a guest blog by Joe Hanley, a lecturer in social work at the Open University who has written extensively on the topic of fast-track programmes in social work and the networks behind them.

Transform Society describe themselves as “the UK’s largest and most powerful network of social change programmes”. They receive hundreds of millions in public funding annually to influence and shape some of our most important public professions, and are backed by some of the largest, and arguably most corrupt, financial and consultancy firms in the world. Transform Society also have an explicit goal to position their people into influential government positions in order to influence change, a goal they are increasingly effective at achieving. With a growing network of close to 20k, public policy decisions are increasingly influenced, and made, by their people.

So why haven’t you heard of them?

Transform Who?

Founded in 2018, and originally named Transform Alliance, Transform Society formalises a coalition of fast-track professional training programmes operating predominantly in England. The founder of Transform Society, James Darley, was previously the director of strategic alliances at Teach First, by far the oldest and largest Transform Society partner, founded back in 2002. Other partners now include:

· Frontline, a children and families social work fast-track, founded in 2013.

· Think Ahead, a mental health social work fast-track, founded in 2014.

· Police Now, a police fast-track, founded in 2015.

· Unlocked Graduates, a prison officer fast-track, founded in 2016.

These programmes are all based on the same fundamental model pioneered in England by Teach First: recruitment based primarily on traditional academic credentials, a short residential summer school (3–6 weeks) and then predominantly on-the-job learning, all culminating in a postgraduate qualification.

While you may be aware of one or even all of Transform Society’s partners, you are much less likely to recognise the broader alliance and its growing influence on government reforms. You are even less likely to be aware of the extent of the private business backing Transform Society partners receive from dozens of organisations, some of whom engage in highly problematic behaviours in other sectors. The full list of these private financial supporters can be read on each of the individual programme websites, but notable examples include:

· Boston Consulting Group

· Barclays

· Credit Suisse

· Deloitte

· Goldman Sachs

· PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)

· Citigroup

· Shell

· KPMG

· Google

· Ernst & Young (EY)

· McKinsey

· Bloomberg

Many of these organisations are also represented on Transform Society partner boards and several even played a central role in the initial founding and designing of the fast-track model. This includes McKinsey, who proposed the initial ideas behind Teach First, and the Boston Consulting Group, a founding partner of Frontline.

While this private support is instrumental to the running of Transform Society and its partners, the vast majority of their funding still comes from the central government. This funding is usually provided through start-up grants initially, and then through larger tendered contracts once the programmes are entrenched. These contracts are usually written based on the specifics of the existing programmes, making it almost impossible for others to compete without comprehensively altering their provision, and becoming just another Teach First clone themselves. Unsurprisingly then, no Transform Society partner has ever failed to win renewal for one of these contracts in England.

Research has shown that when these contracts are broken down on a per participant basis, they prove to be much more expensive in terms of public funding than other qualifying routes. As an illustrative example, the Frontline programme costs 2–3x more than university run qualifying training, despite being of a shorter duration, relying primarily on on-the-job learning, and being heavily subsidised by private financial organisations. Buoyed by their continued success in obtaining these contracts, Transform Society partners have gradually branched into bidding on lucrative contracts beyond their core programmes. Teach First in particular have become adept at securing government contracts in education, and in 2021 alone were awarded a £113m contract extension for their core programme, while also being a shared supplier on nine additional contracts, ranging in value from £1.2m to £250m.

Capture

Transform Society and its partners have an explicit goal to propel those who have been through their programmes into influential roles. This can be seen evidenced in a number of places, including:

· Transform Society’s website states that they “accelerate professionals as leaders in the public sector”.

· Frontline have an operational target to have at least 30% of their graduates into more senior roles after only 18 months (a goal that recent data suggests they are close to meeting).

· Unlocked Graduates explicitly promote their programme as a path to “securing a role in government”, and even held a recruitment session in 2021 specifically focused on how their programme can help applicants secure government jobs. The following was the session’s introductory blurb:

“Want to find out how can you secure a role in government? Participants from the Unlocked Graduates and National Graduate Development Programme schemes will be sitting down to discuss how they worked their way into government roles — and how you can do the same!”

· Police Now’s 2019 impact report outlined their ambition that, “one day, Police Now participants will land senior leadership roles within forces and government, as well as other sectors, to enhance opportunities for a positive impact”.

· There is a deferred-entry agreement Transform Society partners and the Civil Service Fast Stream, a civil service programme that fast-tracks “talented” individuals into leadership positions in the Civil Service.

· Transform Society founder James Darley was reported to have said at a 2019 conference that “I fully believe that the only way this country will change is when all of our top leaders have done Teach First or one of these programmes it inspired”.

· Darley also told potential candidates at a graduate recruitment event: “I’m very passionate about building this kind of cadre of leaders who will be taking over our public sector in the future”.

This all demonstrates that Transform Society are engaged in a concerted, and overt, effort to position their own people within influential positions, in particular within the government. It also undermines any claims they make about helping to solve vacancy rates on the frontlines of these professions, a common tool they use to market themselves at policy makers.

This strategy has started to yield results. This is most notable in relation to Teach First, who count among their 15k “ambassadors” (their word for alumni): two MPs, a number of Department for Education advisors, and current and former advisors to the Children’s Commissioner. Teach First graduates are also increasingly being handed key roles in government reform. As a prominent example, Josh MacAlister, Teach First ambassador and founder of Frontline, is currently chairing the Children’s Social Care Review, self-described as a “a once in a generation opportunity to transform the children’s social care system”.

Alongside accelerating their graduates into existing leadership roles, Transform Society also encourage them to set up their own enterprises. Again Teach First have the most impressive track record in this regard, led by their Innovation Unit. Being able to draw on the ambassador network and the ongoing support of Teach First, ambassadors have founded dozens of enterprises, including Oak National Academy, Now Teach, Reach Academy, The Brilliant Club, Jamie’s Farm, The Difference and The Access Project, as well as Transform Society partners Unlocked Graduates and Frontline.

Many of these newly founded enterprises also go on to secure their own government funding. Some prominent examples include Now Teach, a teacher recruitment enterprise that in November 2021 secured £3m in Department for Education funding for national expansion, and Oak National Academy, an online educational resource hub that has received approximately £6.5m in Department for Education funding since it was founded in 2020. Following this success, other Transform Society partners have started to follow suit, launching their own innovation initiatives. Unlocked Graduates have set up an Innovation Acceleration Programme and Frontline have launched an Innovation Lab, with the goal to support at least five Frontline Fellows to set up social innovations by 2025.

Political and Media Networking

While a network of 20k graduates, growing by over 3,000 every year, who have received specific training to rise into leadership positions, been told consistently that they are the “best and brightest” and been given practical and financial support to rise up the ranks may seem a formidable force, most are relatively new graduates, early in their careers. It will therefore be some time before Transform Society can rely on their alumni alone for the type of influence they need to be sustainable. And even then, save for a world where Darley’s vision of a total takeover of political networks is achieved, Transform Society will likely always have to engage in some level of political wrangling in order to maintain their expansionism.

Transform Society partners use a number of mechanisms to secure the political support they require, including board appointments and patronages. As an illustrative example, the Frontline chair appointment brief put out in August 2021 highlighted that their new chair needed to have “good networks across central and local government and the political sphere”, while shockingly not requiring any actual knowledge of social work. Ultimately that selection process appointed life-peer Tony Hall, who had stepped down as Chair of the National Gallery only 6 months earlier following revelations about his role in the Princess Diana BBC interview. In stepping down from that post he professed his desire not to “be a distraction to an institution I care deeply about”. Seemingly he has no similar qualms about working with Frontline and Transform Society, and they no qualms with bringing him in as long as he brought with him his influence and connections. There are countless other political appointments and partnerships that could be pointed to. However, probably the most high-profile is Prince Charles, who helped to found Teach First and continues to act as a patron. The Prince has been shown to be willing to throw his influence around to support them as well, and in 2018 was revealed to have used private meetings with government ministers to lobby for Teach First contracts in Scotland.

Ministers and politicians are also a regular feature at the summer institutes and graduation ceremonies of Transform Society partners, further entrenching this connection between the programmes, their graduates and political influence, and helping to explain why politicians so enthusiastically defend these fast-track programmes despite all their deficits. Indeed it has been government commissioned reports that have provided much of the impetus for these programmes to be introduced and expanded. For example, the Coates Review of prison education recommended the establishment of a Teach First style route for prison officers, what would shortly afterwards become Unlocked Graduates. Natasha Porter, Teach First ambassador and founder of Unlocked Graduates, was part of that review’s panel, and Sally Coates, who chaired that review, now sits on the board of Unlocked Graduates. The Narey Review of social work education similarly supported the fast-track model for social work, and was used to justify Frontline’s rapid expansion. Martin Narey, who chaired that review, has also worked extensively as a Department for Education advisor, and would later go on to sit on the Children’s Commissioner Advisory Board alongside Frontline founder Josh MacAlister.

Transform Society partners frequently claim cross-party support, and historically Andrew Adonis (Labour), Michael Gove (Conservative) and Norman Lamb (Liberal Democrats) commissioned the first cohorts of Teach First, Frontline and Think Ahead respectively while in ministerial roles. While the current Johnson-led government regularly reaffirms their support of Transform Society partners, it is unclear what level support Transform Society currently holds within the opposition. The 2015 Labour Manifesto included explicit support for both Frontline and Teach First; but there has been no such support for any Transform Society partners in the 2017 or 2019 manifestos. Some Labour MPs have spoken out against Transform Society partners and the impact they are having on public professions, including Emma Lewell-Buck, who has regularly questioned ministers on the failures of Frontline. However, the labour shadow cabinet reshuffle in November 2021 included prominent new ministerial positions for a number of MPs who have previously expressed their support for Transform Society partners, including David Lammy, Yvette Cooper, Steve Reed and Wes Streeting. Until a prominent opposition party leader comes out publicly against this takeover of our professions, Transform Society will continue assume this cross-party support.

Transform Society networking also extends to media outlets, and similar to political and business connections, they frequently appoint prominent members of the media to positions within their organisations. This could help to explain why mainstream media outlets are so friendly towards Transform Society and its partners, usually ignoring or downplaying their scandals and failures, while uncritically promoting the organisations and spreading their press releases (some recent examples of scandals at these organisations: Frontline Race Record, Teach First drops Recruits).

In a particularly stark example of media networking and how it benefits them, Transform Society has appointed Martin Birchall, editor of the Times Top 100 Graduate Employers list, to its board. That list consistently lists all members of Transform Society amongst its top ranked graduate employers, a point that they use regularly in their promotional materials and marketing. Registered as charities, Transform Society partners are also able to avail of pro-bono advertising, including that offered by Google. Transform Society partners have, however, not always been honest in this marketing, and there are examples of both Think Ahead and Teach First advertisements being removed from Google for inaccuracies.

The hope, presumably, is that eventually Transform Society won’t have to spend so much time and resources working to develop these political and media connections, as they will have their own graduates in influential positions. Indeed the patience of Transform Society in getting to this status quo is potentially being tested, and as a result they are increasingly moving into providing professional development opportunities to those already in prominent leadership positions. This includes the recent announcement from Frontline that they will be targeting a new course directly at heads of social services. Those who complete this programme will join their fellowship the same as graduates at qualifying level, bringing their influence and networks with them.

Working with some colleagues across the UK, I have been involved in a largescale mapping project examining children’s services and education in England. This map further lays bare these networks, and in particular the networks surrounding Frontline and Teach First. The full interactive map, and more details, can be accessed here.

Frontline network map
Teach First network map

Saviourism

None of this is to say that those going through these programmes don’t have good intentions, and indeed one of the most tired but effective ways to dampen criticism against Transform Society is to equate all critiques as attacks on the individual trainees they recruit. Having said that, it must be acknowledged Transform Society partners are selling a very specific worldview and ideology to those they train: what can best be described as saviourism.

Their recruits are told from the start that they are the “elite”, “best and brightest”, “high quality graduates” and “talented individuals”, with the implicit implication that others training and working in these professions are not. They are then provided the core of their training in isolated residential summer institutes, where this ideology can be further engrained with limited distraction or interference. Following these institutes, lasting from 3–6 weeks depending on the programme, participants are thrust into some of the most difficult professional roles we have, and told they will have a transformational impact on the most disadvantaged schools, the most struggling families and the toughest wards. This all also means that if you are from a disadvantaged socio-economic background, you are far more likely to have one of these Transform Society “elite” professional involved in your life.

There is evidence that participants internalise these messages of superiority and saviourism. A 2012 London Metropolitan University study found that Teach First participants displayed patronising attitudes towards the low-income communities they worked with, and a 2021 evaluation of Frontline found that Frontline participants struggled to integrate with other students, and even told those other students that they were “better than them”.

However, there is also evidence that some participants reject this saviour mentality. In evaluations of both Frontline and Think Ahead their participants raised concerns that they had been mis-sold an idealised picture of social work and the issues facing the communities they would be supporting. But those participants may not even be able to freely leave the programmes once they have signed up without facing large financial penalties. These financial penalties, as used by Frontline, were justified by then Minister for Children and Families Nadhim Zahawi as necessary for “clawing back public funding” from participants who don’t meet their commitments to the fast-track programme.

Corporate Saviourism

The normalisation of private interests leading social change and reform, as promoted by Transform Society through their many corporate partnerships, is also implicitly instilled in their graduates. Unlocked Graduates, Teach First and Police Now participants are even offered placements and secondments with corporate partners, including M&S, Red Bull, Accenture, KPMG, Google, EY and PwC, further entrenching this ideology. There is an obvious motivation for these private sector organisations to be involved with Transform Society: access. Many of the organisations supporting Transform Society are particularly reliant on government contracts for growth and expansion, and supporters like Boston Consulting Group, Deloitte and EY have been some of the biggest recipients of untendered contracts in recent years related to both Brexit and Covid-19.

Further demonstrating the value of access in these partnerships, private partners are regularly awarded contracts in the areas that their respective Transform Society partners are engaged in. For example, EY are a supporter of Unlocked Graduates, and in November 2021 alone they were awarded two major contracts from the Ministry of Justice related to the running and reform of prisons, totalling £5m. KPMG and Deloitte support the social work fast-tracks Frontline and Think Ahead respectively, and were both awarded multi-million pound contracts to help develop and implement the social work National Assessment and Accreditation System (NAAS), a scheme that was scrapped in January 2022 following persistent failures to meet its own targets, and at a final public funding waste of more than £24m.

These private organisations have also been accused of laundering their consciences through their involvement with Transform Society partners, something that many badly need. For example. Credit Suisse have consistently made Teach First and Frontline some of the biggest beneficiaries of grants from their charitable foundation. While doing so they have faced a slew of scandals and corruption claims. Most recently leaked documents in February 2022 revealed that their banking processes have facilitated “torture, drug trafficking, money laundering, corruption and other serious crimes”. Neither Teach First nor Frontline have made a statement about this development or their ongoing relationship with Credit Suisse.

Speed Bumps and Expansion

The more successful Transform Society are at achieving their goals to gain influence in government and elsewhere, the more these ideologies of saviourism and corporate saviourism will come to define our public professions and services. And there are signs that Transform Society plan to continue their rapid expansion, both in their current professions and through venturing into new ones. For example, in late 2021 they welcomed the National Graduate Development Programme, a training programme for local authority managers, into their fold. In August 2021 Transform Society also announced a partnership with CareTech, one of the largest private social care providers in the country. As with most of the private organisations that Transform Society partner, CareTech have been heavily criticised for their business practices. Most recently a February 2022 Times investigation revealed that CareTech was funnelling millions of pounds into an off-shore company owned by its founders following in year when their profits, obtained predominantly from contracts with local authorities, grew by 75%. It is therefore quite scandalous that CareTech, working with Transform Society, have now proposed a new fast-track registered manager programme Now Care, which would see the government foot the bill to train their registered managers, at a cost of £20k per participant.

There are other examples of expansionist behaviour. Unlocked Graduates recently completed a Ministry of Justice sponsored scoping exercise to explore recruitment possibilities in probation, at the same time that their corporate sponsor, KPMG, have been awarded a £3m consultancy contract related to the ongoing reform of the probation system. Following on from these consultation exercises, the Ministry of Justice announced a £39m contract for the design and provision of a new professional qualification in probation, a contract that will run until 2029. I will let you make up your own mind about who may be bidding for that, and who is most likely to win it.

There are also other existing programmes in England that explicitly draw on the Teach First model, but are not currently formal members of Transform Society. This includes Public Practice, working in public planning, Minds Ahead, providing school leaders with mental health training, and even the British Army, whose Lead First programme provides individuals with no army experience an 8 week intensive learning course before “being given responsibility for leading and managing soldiers”. This all shows just how engrained the Teach First model and ideology has become in English society and services.

The expansion and networking of Transform Society go far beyond what has been captured in this short blog. For example, in 2014 Teach First Launched the Fair Education Alliance alongside 23 other organisations. That Alliance now includes over 250 organisations, including most of the biggest players in education in England, alongside once again private financial organisations like KMPG, Credit Suisse and EY. Despite its growing membership, Teach First’s influence over Fair Education Alliance remains clear, with Teach First’s founder and current CEO both represented on the board, and the former lead of the Teach First Innovation Unit acting as CEO. This networking is also international, and Teach First have co-founded the Teach for All network, that has spread the fast-track teaching model to 60 countries.

Notably though it has not been all expansion and growth for Transform Society. Think Ahead may have actually left the alliance. While there has been no formal announcement from Transform Society or Think Ahead on this development, a board member of Think Ahead announced on Twitter in October 2021 that they would be removing themselves, and the Think Ahead logo was removed from the Transform Society website in early 2022. In 2016 Teach First also did not have their contract renewed in Wales, and they had to withdraw an attempt to expand to Scotland in 2017 after the collective action of universities who refused to work with them. Also in 2017 a proposal to introduce a nurse fast track, Nurse First, failed to even make it to pilot stage. Notably though, these developments occurred prior to the founding of the Transform Society, and indeed the formalisation of the fast-track programme alliance could be seen as a response to these setbacks.

These examples do however provide those of use resisting the expansion of Transform Society in England hope that this resistance can succeed, showing the chinks in the armour of this finely tuned networking machine. The more that Transform Society get their people into influential leadership positions, and engrain their ideology in our public systems and professions, the more difficult it will be to reclaim those systems and professions. Indeed we may be past the point of no return, and need to accept that our public professions are no longer ours, but belong to Transform Society and their corporate partners. On this point, however, I am not yet ready to concede.

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Christian Kerr

Concerned citizen/novice by experience. Thru a social work lens. Working class person.