Tougher targets alone will not be enough
Seven years ago, I was part of a research team supporting the Government's Schools Facing Challenging Circumstances (SFCC) initiative, aimed at improving results in the schools that serve England's most deprived communities.
The parallels with today's National Challenge are striking in terms of both the approach adopted and the schools involved. The targets they are expected to meet are tougher, but the method of support the same - investment, combined with "a plan" and external monitoring. And once again the language surrounding the intervention has slipped from low attainment to - in the Prime Minister's words - "failure".
The values of the SFCC scheme were sound, but the execution flawed, and the impact less than anticipated. Without significant changes, National Challenge may also fail to fulfil its potential.
The good news is that the Government has involved local authorities to a much greater extent this time around, which should prevent the centralised one-size-fits-all approach that has tended to dominat in the past. High-calibre external "challenge advisers" are also involved.
But there are other lessons to learn. National Challenge will fail to improve struggling schools unless it is felt as a positive lever for change. All too often "challenge" becomes negative, debilitating and corrosive, leading to a focus on short-term unsustainable tactics designed to boost GCSE scores, rather than longer-term capacity building.
Using extra resources to invest in staff through more continuing professional development, rather than just technology, is important.
If National Challenge is to work, teachers and school leaders must share ownership of it. These people have a deep understanding of the contexts and challenges schools face and are responsible for turning policy into practice.
Ministers should temper the pace of change. Urgency is needed, but strategy and its implications must be clearly thought through.
A more sophisticated and broader range of measurements are necessary to identify the achievements of individual schools. Taking account of contextual value-added results and Ofsted judgements would help. But other indicators are required to assess a range of different factors, including the contribution a school makes to the community.
Our recent research for the National College for School Leadership suggests that restructuring can provide an attractive solution. But federations and academies alone are insufficient and need to be combined with a deep understanding of local context.
Finally, the extent to which interventions of this type will ever be powerful enough to change schools in the most challenging areas remains questionable.
For some, a tipping point can be reached and momentum generated, which leads to fantastic, sustained improvements. But in the most difficult areas, schools alone cannot overcome the complex nature of the challenges they face. The odds are so highly stacked against them that they never will.
In these cases a more co-ordinated approach to social improvement is needed, with the Department for Children, Schools and Families working with colleagues in a range of departments. It is about better housing and job creation.
Success will depend on improving people's aspirations and changing the way they think.
- 'Radical Reforms: Perspectives on an Era of Educational Change', edited by Dr Christopher Chapman and Helen H Gunter, will be available in the autumn.
- 'Emerging Patterns of School Leadership' is published by NCSL
Dr Christopher Chapman, Reader in educational leadership and school improvement, Manchester University.