“There isn’t any reason why children in the North couldn’t achieve more in school. Of course they could.”
These words might bring some encouragement to those who want to see an improvement in results in the North of England, because they come from Sir Tim Brighouse, the man who led the London Challenge.
This school improvement initiative is often credited with the astonishing improvement in results in the capital that led to inner-London education authorities going from being the worst-performing to the best-performing nationally. Now, Brighouse thinks that this success could be repeated at the other end of the country with the right intervention.
Launched in 2003, the London Challenge involved independent experts identifying need and brokering support for underperforming schools.
When asked what lessons can be learned from the programme in London, Brighouse says: “Getting schools to learn from each other.” However, he cautions that understanding context is the key to school improvement.
Brighouse, who was a chief education officer in Oxfordshire and Birmingham before working in London, says: “In each of these places, we improved schools. But in every one of those places, what we did to improve schools was different. There is a different context, of the place, the challenge, where the schools were and the people we had.”
The problem, he believes, is how to ensure that school collaboration happens across an area in the current school system: “The issue is how do you generate a window for schools, without threatening or prescribing to them so that they learn from each other?”
Rather than looking to London, Brighouse suggests the North can lead its own improvements. And it seems there is a growing appetite for this to happen.
Attempts to repeat the success of the London Challenge have already been made, with the Greater Manchester and Black Country challenges taking place between 2008 and 2011.
An evaluation for the government of the three “City Challenge” programmes found that London schools had improved significantly but the “picture was more patchy” in Greater Manchester and the Black Country. However, it did credit the initiative with increasing the number of schools rated by Ofsted as “good” and “outstanding” in Greater Manchester.
‘No silver bullet’
Professor Mel Ainscow, who led the Greater Manchester Challenge, suggests there “is not one silver bullet” in London that can be used to transform schools elsewhere. But he echoes Brighouse’s view it is crucial for schools to be able to learn from one another.
Ainscow says Greater Manchester is now building on the legacy of the challenge with a new board working to raise standards across the education authority. It will report to Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and brings together leaders from across the area. Ainscow suggests that devolution provides new opportunities for local regions to lead the way in school improvement.
There is “enormous expertise across Greater Manchester”, he adds, and the board aims to ensure it benefits as many pupils as possible.
For many years, decision-making in education appeared to be moving out of the regions towards Whitehall. So does the devolution agenda really mean this could be reversed?
Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, certainly thinks so. When asked if the London Challenge could be replicated, she suggests that the North needs the power to find its own solutions.
“We are looking at the skills agenda and how we rebalance our economy to regenerate the North, but I think there is a recognition that we cannot start this at post-16,” she says. “We need to have more of a say on how the education provision across the North is shaped.”
The Northern Powerhouse Partnership, chaired by former chancellor George Osborne, has also made the case for decision-making over schools to be moved to the North. Director Henri Murison says that he does not believe the current regional schools commissioner system is working. Instead, he suggests creating a new Northern Powerhouse school improvement board, which would make a final decision on funding for school improvement across the region, challenging poor performance in multi-academy trusts and reallocating schools to those with capacity.
The partnership is also calling for the creation of a Northern centre of excellence on transformational schools to research how to turn failing schools around and enable them to make sustainable improvements.
Brighouse, who chaired an education commission in Doncaster, agrees that the solutions can be can be found in the North. He believes that the answer is to find ways of allowing similar schools across large areas to learn from each other. He suggests the arrival of metro mayors such as Burnham could be the trigger for this to start happening.
“In London and Birmingham, we looked for excellence within and we looked to use people’s sense of pride in a place,” he says. “I’m sure this can be done in the North, too.”