The challenge now is to hang on to this success

25th March 2011 at 00:00
Analysis - The London Challenge proved that schools stuck in a cycle of underperformance could be turned around. But will the scheme's legacy survive its demise, asks William Stewart

One of England's longest-running school improvement programmes comes to an end on Thursday. There is nothing particularly unusual about that; ministers often quietly drop failed attempts to raise standards. But the demise of the London Challenge is different because this is one scheme that actually worked.

Inspectors, unions, heads and a variety of impressive statistics all seem to agree that the hugely influential London-wide programme has succeeded. And, as is so often the case, the recipe for success has been beautifully uncomplicated.

As Dame Sue John, secondary director of the Challenge's leadership strategy, says: "It is a simple model - that the knowledge is in the system and you need some sort of organisational structure to move it around, plus people with the moral will to do so."

The approach of the Challenge was to offer support to low-attaining secondaries, including pupil mentoring, extra teacher training, and leaders of successful schools on hand to work with those in weaker ones.

When it began in 2003, London had the lowest proportion of pupils achieving the Government's benchmark of five A*-C GCSEs out of England's nine regions. By 2010 it was topping the table.

Professor Dylan Wiliam from London University's Institute of Education (IoE) likes to point out that it has become the only capital city in the developed world where state schools have higher standards than those in the rest of the country.

Although many countries lack the performance data to really test that statement, there is no doubting that today London also has the highest proportion of local authority secondary schools judged outstanding by Ofsted - 30 per cent compared to 17.5 per cent for the rest of England.

These are excellent figures, but could they have simply coincided with the London Challenge and be attributable to other factors?

Dame Sue, head of Lampton School in Hounslow, does not claim that all London's recent success is down to the Challenge. But she says: "We feel there is sufficient evidence - and Ofsted seems to agree - that it has made a major contribution."

Ofsted's final evaluation of the scheme, published in December, concludes that it has been a "key driver" in a change that has seen London's secondary schools perform better and improve faster than the rest of England.

Perhaps most impressively, it has helped ensure that virtually every London secondary now meets the Government's "floor" GCSE target (see box, below).

In other words, the London Challenge appears to have helped solve one of education's most intractable problems - how to turn around the schools at the very bottom.

Transforming that stubborn set of "failing" secondaries, which year after year get "poor" exam results, into "good" schools where pupils achieve respectable results is a challenge that successive governments have wrestled with for decades. It has only grown more acute as league tables and the promotion of parental choice have shed light on state school exam results - and polarised them.

Some would argue that the schools left with a concentration of difficult pupils from families with low expectations are just symptoms of much deeper and wider societal inequality, which needs to be tackled by more than mere schools policy.

But "driving up" school standards has been attempted by successive governments, with the argument that success will increase opportunities for those on the bottom rung.

This is why Fresh Start, Education Action Zones, Excellence In Cities and other long-forgotten school improvement schemes have all come and gone.

After eight years the London Challenge has become the great survivor, with only the academies programme outlasting it - and this now takes a completely different form to when it was first concieved.

To start with, these two ideas were portrayed as intrinsically linked. The launch of the London Challenge in 2003 placed great emphasis on the new academies opening in the capital's most deprived boroughs, even though many were planned before the Challenge was even conceived.

But as time went on, the programme evolved its own distinctive, collaborative approach, centred on schools mentoring each other and sharing good practice.

Sir Tim Brighouse, who headed the Challenge for the first four years as London's schools commissioner, summed up the ethos when he told the capital's teachers: "Don't allow yourself to be isolated."

Ofsted wrote in December: "The leaders of London Challenge have motivated London teachers to think beyond their intrinsic sense of duty to serve pupils well within their own school and to extend that commitment to serving all London's pupils well."

Some view the approach as the opposite of the independence and autonomy encouraged through academies. John Bangs, a visiting professor at the IoE, says: "When it started in 2003 there was the bad side, about promoting academies, but there was the good side, about schools collaborating and putting in support where it was needed.

"The good side won out. It means you have a community approach to school improvement that doesn't mean structural reform and is about helping schools with high levels of deprivation."

It is doubtful that anyone from the London Challenge would describe academies as "bad". But the way the core scheme was set up, with money for school improvement dedicated to local authority-funded secondaries, meant it has had only limited contact with the academy sector.

Dame Sue, whose own school recently converted to an academy, admits that the academy chains still tend to "do their own thing". "We would like to see greater links between sponsored academies and the rest of London," she says.

But the involvement of the capital's other non-academy secondaries has been impressive, with at least 90 per cent estimated to have taken part. Many went through the Keys to Success programme, which focused on the schools where pupil achievement was poorest.

For Professor David Woods, chief adviser to London's schools, it was about "giving them a chance to do well, rather than just saying they were underperforming". This meant that having improved they could go on to to help other Keys to Success schools.

London's good transport links made collaboration easier, and the city-wide nature of the scheme meant it could operate across borough boundaries. This provided the opportunity for new partnerships and also meant that local school rivalries, with the potential to inhibit collaboration, could be avoided.

Dame Sue believes the most valuable element of the scheme has been the pride and willingness to work with pupils city-wide that it has instilled in London teachers. "There is a real kind of moral purpose in what people are doing," she says.

When London Challenge guidance emerged suggesting that schools focus on borderline CD-grade students, some questioned whether the scheme was benefiting all pupils.

"It was a justifiable point to raise three or four years ago, but not now," Professor Woods says. "Obviously, if you want to get schools above certain standards, initially you have to focus on certain grades.

"But I took the criticism to heart and now we look at in-school variation and progress measures including the highest grades."

As the London Challenge progressed it went on to work with secondaries across the spectrum of achievement, aiming to help good schools become great. It has also expanded to take in the capital's primaries - nearly 300 have been involved since 2008 - and the London Challenge model has now been applied right across the country.

Manchester and Black Country challenges covering 14 urban local authorities between them were announced in 2007. Then, in the following year, came the National Challenge - and this was when things went a little awry.

For the London Challenge, getting the language right had always been seen as crucial to its success. The scheme's own valedictory report on the lessons learned notes the approach taken by Sir Tim when referring to schools that needed most help. The report says: "[He] decided to badge these schools as `Keys to Success schools', rather than use the language of `schools in challenging circumstances' or `poor and underperforming schools', thereby setting a tone of expectation and optimism that these schools could improve."

But that careful, motivating approach went out of the window when Labour ministers launched the National Challenge. They used the word "failure" when discussing the performance of 638 secondaries and publicly threatened them with closure unless results improved.

"There was a period when those heads felt done to and got at," admits Professor Woods, who was also principal National Challenge adviser. "But when they discovered they were going to get a specialist adviser and extra funding, they tended to change their minds."

The drafting in of specialist advisers to mentor and support schools, pioneered by the London Challenge, will survive through the national and local leaders of education schemes being expanded by the Government. So will the idea of teaching schools - another London Challenge original.

But the Challenge itself and its regional and national offshoots will all end on Thursday. It was originally only due to last until 2008. But Ofsted warned that would risk the "dramatic" gains already made, and ministers agreed a three-year, pound;80 million extension.

This time round, despite being effusive in its praise, the schools watchdog has issued no such warning. Instead, Ofsted's December report merely called for the expertise and knowledge gained through the London Challenge to be applied across the country in the future.

Ministers hope this will happen. But the structure will go - a decision that some view as a mistake.

Rob Cooper has been in leadership positions in three London secondaries helped by the scheme, and believes its contribution will be difficult to replace.

"London Challenge has a wealth of experience of schools in challenging circumstances," the head of John Paul II RC High in Wimbledon says. "It has been very supportive, is proven to work and offers value for money."

Mr Cooper hopes federations and partnerships between schools will fill the gap, but fears they will lack the evidence base developed by the London Challenge.

Others are more optimistic. "I don't think it needs to be continued in its current form because there is a maturity that has been achieved in the collaboration of London schools," says Dame Sue.

Professor Woods thinks the Challenge has already left a valuable legacy by proving that schools in deprived urban areas can raise their performance.

"We have all demonstrated that this can be done," he says. "We are now able to say that we know schools with a high percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals can do it. There is now no denial."

Before and after: Hitting the floor target, and more

- The London Challenge began in 2003, working with around 80 secondary schools that had failed to reach the then government's floor target of at least 25 per cent of pupils gaining five A*-C GCSEs.

- Today, just nine London secondaries have failed to reach the latest, much tougher floor target of 35 per cent of pupils achieving five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths.

Opinion: Should the programme go?

Professor Dylan Wiliam, Institute of Education: "That's a difficult one. It wasn't at all bad and London schools do have special problems that we need to address. But I think we could do it in a much more focused way now, with more targeted interventions."

Rob Cooper, head of John Paul II RC High, Wimbledon: "No, I don't think it should. London Challenge has made a significant impact on schools both financially and in terms of expertise. There is evidence that they have been doing a very good job. I hope there isn't a negative impact on standards."

Dame Sue John, secondary director of the London Challenge leadership strategy: "I am hopeful in terms of the white paper that the approach will carry on. It won't be the same but that's okay."

Professor John Bangs, former NUT head of education and former Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) member: "No, it has been an amazing success. I suspect they (ministers) have been rather embarrassed because this is a pan-London initiative that has worked, but brings back the spectre of a London-wide approach to education such as ILEA, which did have some tremendous successes."

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