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'The DfE's failure to support colleges is a choice'

The London Challenge proved the government can push through impactful intervention – if it wants to, writes Matt Hamnett

Colleges must beat the odds and the system says Matt Hamnett

The London Challenge proved the government can push through impactful intervention – if it wants to, writes Matt Hamnett

The government does know what serious and impactful intervention in poorly performing education institutions looks like. Its failure to do so in further education is a choice.

In 2002, the former Department for Education and Skills launched the London Challenge to improve the performance of schools in Tower Hamlets, Newham, Lewisham, Hackney and Westminster – some of the worst-performing areas in the country.

The objectives of the programme were to raise standards in the poorest-performing schools; narrow the attainment gap between pupils in London; and create more good and outstanding schools.

The programme had three core elements: a focus on a group of about 30 priority schools with the worst performance; work with "key boroughs" where there were systemic failings in local school performance; and a commitment to investing in the improvement of leadership.

Interventions and support included highly experienced former school leaders acting as advisers to support the schools; generous allocations of funding that advisers could quickly deploy for discrete and tailored interventions; and the forensic use of data to drive improvement.

As a result of the project, London schools’ key stage 4 results went from being among the worst to the best in the country. London had the smallest attainment gap in the country for pupils in receipt of free school meals and, by 2010, Ofsted rated 30 per cent of London schools as outstanding.

The legacy of the programme is still visible. At the end of 2016-17, 91 per cent of London secondary schools were rated good or outstanding by Ofsted – the highest proportion of any region in the country.

Failing to act in FE

I share this example for one reason: the government does know what serious, effective improvement intervention in the education sector looks like. That we have not seen a similar programme in relation to poorly performing FE colleges is a matter of prioritisation through successive policy and spending processes.

If the government was super-serious about improving colleges, it would boost funding, stabilise policy and intervene more fundamentally when organisations were not performing to the required standard.

Beyond the challenges associated with delivery of any public service, colleges have, and continue to face, a particular combination of challenges with respect to their policy and funding context. I believe that these pressures passed a tipping point in the summer of 2015. 

One of the most important conclusions I draw in my new essay is that to quickly, substantially and sustainably improve curriculum and/or financial performance, leaders need to get pretty much everything right.

A 'perfect game' needed

In baseball, there is the concept of a “perfect game” – one in which, over the course of all nine innings, a given pitcher does not allow the opposing team to hit the ball, let alone get to first base, score any runs or home runs.

In more than 200,000 games of professional baseball played through to the summer of 2015, only 23 perfect games had been pitched. While the odds of successfully transforming a struggling FE college are better than that, my analysis of the data shows that the odds of success aren’t as good as the sector and its students need them to be. Most transformations fail.

Only with more stability and support from government can colleges really be expected to transform and sustain their performance for the long term. Where leaders succeed in delivering transformations, they do so by beating the odds – and the system.

Matt Hamnett is a former college CEO and civil servant, and is director of the MH&A consultancy. This is an edited extract from Beating the odds and the system: purpose-led transformation in further education, a paper published by the Further Education Trust for Leadership

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