Editorial - Fuelled by optimism, not blame, London Challenge is testament to what can be done

Gerard Kelly

How is this for a statistic: in 2003 London had the lowest proportion of pupils achieving five A*-C GCSEs out of England's nine regions. Seven years later it had the highest. It is the only capital city in the developed world whose average exam results surpass those of its regions.

That is an incredible result, and much of it is down to a rare beast - a government initiative that worked, the London Challenge (pages 34-35). In 2003, 80 secondaries in the capital failed to propel more than 25 per cent of their pupils through the Government's minimum level of five A*-Cs at GCSE. Eight years later, only nine London secondary schools failed to reach the new tougher floor target of 35 per cent.

Why did it succeed? It isn't primarily a story about money. Extra cash was needed to start and embed the scheme, but its successes are not replicated in areas of deprivation elsewhere that attract similar funding. Nor was there consistent improvement in London's challenging schools until the scheme took off, even though spend per pupil was high.

Three factors were crucial to its success: data, collaboration and subverting the language of failure. Data were used not only to identify where pupils and teachers might need help but also to group together schools that shared similar socio-economic challenges, so apples were compared with apples. Collaboration, too, was key - stronger schools mentored weaker ones and all were encouraged to share good practice. Finally, the language of failure, the blame culture that the last government briefly and disastrously resorted to when it widened the scheme nationally three years ago, was turned on its head. Schools that needed most help were badged as "keys to success", rather than being saddled with the condescending label "underperforming". The message was that these schools could and would improve - they were motivated to succeed rather than consigned to languish.

Next Thursday London Challenge will come to an end; a victim of its own success say some, or Tory envy say others. There are understandable fears that what was learnt may be lost. Optimists hope its expertise will be retained and filter through the spreading federations, the expanded leaders of education schemes and the new teaching schools. We shall see.

But before we give away to exaggerated hopes or fears, we should celebrate what there is. In an era of cuts and pessimism, when the Left pretends education is going to hell in a handcart, the Right thinks its always been there and television believes that a celebrity chef has the magic recipe, we should acknowledge a simple truth. London Challenge worked because it used the best of what exists. It harnessed and focused the experience, generosity, commitment and conviction - the inherent strengths of the profession - to make it work. It worked because it believed. And it believed in teachers like you.


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Gerard Kelly

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