Lessons from London on closing the attainment gap

4th December 2015 at 00:00
The Scottish ‘challenge’ to improve deprived pupils’ outcomes will draw heavily on the capital’s model

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced funding of £100 million in February to support the Scottish Attainment Challenge – a huge drive to improve the performance of pupils from the poorest backgrounds. At the time, she said the initiative would “draw heavily” on the London Challenge.

So what was the London Challenge and how might it influence Scottish education?

How did the London Challenge come about?

When Tony Blair’s Labour government was elected in 1997, London’s schools were the worst-performing in England and there was “a growing sense of an education crisis in the capital”. The London Challenge was introduced in May 2003 to help make London a world leader in education.

What was involved?

The London Challenge was a five-year strategy with an annual budget of £40 million at its peak. It aimed to improve results in secondary schools and also to bring about a cultural change, raising aspirations and expectations, improving teacher morale and increasing parental confidence in schools.

Under the challenge, a wide range of new approaches were tried and those that did not work were altered or abandoned. There was a focus on raising the quality of school leadership and the quality of teaching and learning.

Another central element was the focus on the weakest schools, which were seen as “key to success”. Retired or semi-retired education professionals were appointed to work with these schools as challenge advisers.

There was also a strong emphasis on the use of data. Families of schools were created in the hope that struggling secondaries would learn lessons from others in similar circumstances that were doing better.

How successful was the London Challenge?

By 2005, the performance of London schools was above the national average, and the city has continued to improve, outperforming other regions. In 2010, schools inspectorate Ofsted declared that London had a higher proportion of good and outstanding schools than any other area of England. However, there has been some suggestion that the rapid gentrification of inner London might have played a part in the success of the challenge. It could be that some schools changed because their intake became more privileged.

What does the Scottish Attainment Challenge look like?

The Attainment Challenge in Scotland got under way in August and will run for four years. The government has chosen to focus on primary instead of secondary, and the councils with the highest concentrations of pupils living in poverty have been targeted, rather than failing schools. Seven local authorities were included initially: Glasgow, Dundee, Inverclyde, West Dunbartonshire, North Ayrshire, Clackmannanshire and North Lanarkshire. Since then, the Attainment Challenge has been extended to a further 57 primary schools in 14 local authorities.

How has it been received?

There is agreement across the board that something needs to be done to boost the performance of pupils from poorer backgrounds. Back in 2007, an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report found that a “major challenge” in Scotland was that “children from poorer communities and low socio-economic status homes are more likely than others to underachieve”.

However, it has been pointed out that most children living in poverty in Scotland don’t go to school in the most deprived areas, and that those who live in poverty in better-off areas are in danger of falling below the radar.

Has the London Challenge been replicated elsewhere?

The three-year City Challenge was launched in April 2008 in the Black Country, Greater Manchester and London. It was designed to improve educational outcomes for young people and “to crack the associated cycle of disadvantage and underachievement”.

Was the City Challenge a success?

Yes. Participating schools that had low and average attainment initially “improved significantly more” than those outside challenge areas. The attainment of pupils eligible for free school meals also increased by more than the national figure. However, improvement was patchier in Greater Manchester and the Black Country than in London. This has been put down in part to the London Challenge taking place over eight years and the initiative in the other areas lasting only three.


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