Rising to the Challenge

6th March 2015 at 00:00

Reproducing the London Challenge in Scotland is not a simple solution to closing the attainment gap ("Scottish schools will get the London look", News, 13 February). Although we may be inspired to adopt some of the initiative's positive messages, we must be selective about which elements will help. A particular issue will be how to develop an approach potent in impact but compatible with this country's values. Three key questions might focus our minds:

1. Are we dealing with transformational truths or impressive myths? The London Challenge was not a case of uniform transformation; the City Challenge programme was even more variable. The realities of practice suggest a complex mix of successes, missed opportunities and variable impact. Neither are Challenge-style approaches a myth. They are context-specific, intensive interventions that can legitimately claim some success. But without a deep understanding of the intervention and context, they may not readily transfer to our system.

2. What lessons can we learn from Challenge-style initiatives? There are clear messages: focusing on low-attaining schools and core subjects; using credible external advisers; investing resources directly into schools; building capacity through CPD; promoting structured collaboration and networking; using contextualised improvement data; and developing a strategy that links schools to public services and communities. We must reflect on these to develop a Scottish initiative.

3. What might an Attainment Challenge in Scotland look like? The lessons suggest that our approach should work within, between and beyond schools.

Within schools, we need to emphasise literacy and numeracy but resist the temptation to focus purely on primary schools. The core aim should be to improve teaching, learning and leadership at all levels. We should use a wide range of data and place collaborative, enquiry-based professional learning at the heart of these efforts.

Between schools, we need to establish "innovation hubs" to move the best evidence, expertise and practice around the system. Key agencies need to work in partnership with local authorities to broker and facilitate action across hubs, positioning them as spaces for experimentation, innovation and evaluation of the initiative.

Beyond schools, we need links to community planning partnerships and other agencies. We must draw down existing capital in communities, business and other organisations to improve access and raise young people's aspirations and achievement.

Ultimately, implementation is as important as the content. Even the most robust and inspirational strategy is doomed to failure unless all parties can work together under a shared vision for the future.

Professor Christopher Chapman is chair of educational policy and practice and director of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change at the University of Glasgow

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