City challenge heads north up the M6

David Marley

... but there is still a long way to go before all schools in deprived urban areas pass Sir Mike Tomlinson's ultimate test.

The acid test for the man in charge of improving London's schools is whether he would send his own children to any comprehensive in the capital. Results have improved dramatically over the past five years, but Sir Mike Tomlinson, the new chief adviser for London schools, believes there is still some distance to travel.

"There are still some, although not many, where I would not want my children to attend," he said.

Sir Mike, former chief inspector of schools and chairman of the Hackney Learning Trust, started at London Challenge last month. The scheme is one of many that have sought to address underachievement in areas of urban deprivation.

Two years ago, Ofsted said it was playing an important role in the capital, out-pacing improvements being made in the rest of the country. Now ministers are putting a further pound;180 million into the scheme over the next three years and have extended it to Greater Manchester and the Black Country.

In April, Sir Mike will be joined by Professor Mel Ainscow and Professor Sir Geoff Hampton as advisers overseeing the scheme's expansion. The question is: can the lessons from London be so easily applied to different urban settings?

The programmes will be run on broadly similar lines. Schools struggling to achieve good GCSE pass rates will get extra support. They will get advisers and extra training for teachers and pupil mentors.

In London, where the initiative started in 2003, almost 61 per cent of pupils in maintained schools now get five or more top GCSE grades, an increase of more than 10 percentage points in the past three years. With English and maths included, that figure stands at almost 48 per cent - two percentage points above the national average.

Results at Southfields Community College in Wandsworth, south-west London, have improved from 11 per cent in 2003 to 37 per cent last year. Jacqueline Valin, the headteacher, said: "We were given an adviser who acted as a critical friend. It had a big impact. We put on study support and revision weekends. It kick-started us into a different way of thinking."

Sir Mike believes that success can be repeated outside London.

Sir Geoff, in charge of the Black Country Challenge, was the first head to be knighted for services to education after he turned round the then failing Northicote School in Wolverhampton. He plans to work with poor departments in otherwise good schools, as well as traditionally low-achieving schools that struggle across the board. The challenge initiative is not the whole answer to problems, but it can provide the catalyst to change, he said.

Professor Ainscow, another former head, is chief adviser in Greater Manchester. "There are things we are bringing up the M6," she said, "and it would be foolish not to take advice from London, but we have our own circumstances to deal with." The underlying problems of poverty were similar between the two areas, he said, but they would be dealt with in different ways.

"The smaller size of Greater Manchester means we will put more emphasis on networking and sharing best practice," he said. "We want the scheme to have an impact on every school and every teacher. In London that's probably not possible. It has to be sustainable, otherwise, if the money is taken away, the progress we make will fade."

Neither adviser has announced with which schools they will be working, but Nigel Combellack, head of Pendeford business and enterprise college in Wolverhampton, said he had been approached. Only 20 per cent of his pupils achieved five good GCSEs last year, 10 percentage points below the national target. Gordon Brown has given schools five years to reach 30 per cent or risk being closed.

"We are facing a real challenge," said Mr Combellack said. "Schools want to learn from each other and be given the resources to improve."

Bernard Phillips, head of Breeze Hill School in Oldham, where 17 per cent passed the requisite GCSEs last year, said: "There is that dreaded initiative fatigue around, but not in relation to this idea.

"We have already been put into families of schools with similar pupil intakes. We can see which schools are doing better in certain subjects and find out why."

Sir Mike acknowledges that London is going to get tougher. The challenge has backed schools going for "quick fixes", focusing on CD borderline pupils. In the longer term, they will need a more innovative and risk-taking approach.

"Those who try something different should not be damned if they don't achieve everything they have set out to do," he said.

Sir Mike believes diplomas will raise standards. That is not surprising as he was responsible for drawing up the initial blueprint to give parity to vocational and academic qualifications. He said they will re-engage 14-year-olds who are bored with school.

But the overall aim is to keep staff focused.

"It is possible for teachers to take their eye off the main ball when so many others are being tossed towards them," Sir Mike said.

Urban challenges

Research shows that little progress has been made in closing the educational divide between rich and poor. A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that working-class children still suffer from low parental expectations.

There are several schemes that have helped raise results in inner cities over the past 10 years.

- Excellence in Cities, which provided extra money and helped raise GCSE results between 2002 and 2006, according to research by the National Foundation for Educational Research. White boys in deprived areas had a 38 per cent chance of achieving five good GCSEs if they were at a school involved in the programme, compared with a 31 per cent chance in other schools.

- Education Action Zones encouraged partnerships between clusters of secondariess, their feeder primaries and local businesses.

- Leadership Incentive Grants gave money to strengthen leadership and promote collaboration with other schools. Money was also put into the Behaviour Improvement Programme to tackle truancy and exclusions.

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David Marley

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