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Turning around Tower Hamlets

  • By Christine Gilbert

‘The experience of Tower Hamlets since 1998 is inspirational. It shows that improvement is not only possible but achievable, that improvement in some schools does not need to be bought at the expense of others and that improvement, once attained, can not only be sustained but surpassed. As a result, it is not unreasonable to argue that what Tower Hamlets has created are some of the best urban schools in the world. This is a genuinely exceptional achievement, worth celebrating, worth understanding, but, above all, worth learning from.’ (Wood, Husbands & Brown, 2013)

Outcomes for children in schools across London have improved significantly in recent years. As part of this positive picture, the progress of schools in Tower Hamlets over a period of nearly two decades has
been recognised as a major success story.

Back in 1997, educational performance in the borough was dire. Standards of performance were the worst in the country; Ofsted’s judgements were damning about the authority and many of its schools; and schools lacked any confidence in the role of the education authority. Achievements since that period have been significant due to a relentless focus on raising standards by schools, by the council and by the community.

I arrived in Tower Hamlets in April 1997 to take up the post of corporate director, education. In this article, I want to explore the main factors that underpinned the process of change in Tower Hamlets and the continuing pattern of improvement in educational outcomes. I shall finish by considering whether the Tower Hamlets story has any relevance today given the changing role of local authorities.

Over the last couple of years, Tower Hamlets has been the focus of various research studies. Big-City School Reforms: Lessons from New York, Toronto and London (Fullan and Boyle, 2014) identified four characteristics evident in the Tower Hamlets transformation:

• resolute leadership
• allegiance
• professional power
• sustainability.

These characteristics are rooted in a framework of improvement which uses the concepts ‘push’ and ‘pull’ (Hargreaves, Boyle and Harris, 2014). They have their origins in concepts of ‘pressure’ and ‘support’ which have featured in the language of school improvement for the last 20 years.

Actions that ‘push’ are relentless, insistent, ‘in your face’ and not up for negotiation. Actions that ‘pull’ draw people together, to collaborate, to work and to learn together. These characteristics provide a useful framework for explaining success in Tower Hamlets.

Resolute leadership
In 1997, Tower Hamlets languished in 149th position amongst the 149 local authorities. Only 26 per cent of students obtained five or higher grade GCSEs, compared with the national average of 43 per cent and the position at Key Stage 2 was no better with just 47 per cent of pupils attaining level 4 on the English test compared with 63 per cent nationally. Shortly after I took up my post in the borough, Ofsted (1998) found that the education service was failing, placing the responsibility at the door both of schools and the authority. Although Tower Hamlets was the best funded authority in the country, the resources were neither being used effectively to combat the high levels of disadvantage nor to raise standards in schools.

I had come to Tower Hamlets from Harrow, a top-performing London borough. In many ways, my recruitment was an interesting choice for elected members to make. Although Harrow had a diverse population, I had no recent inner city experience. Members were ambitious for young people in Tower Hamlets and for change but they did not know how to effect that change.

They appointed me because I had already been a director in a top-performing borough and they thought I would know what ‘good’ looked like. Certainly, my five years as a director of education gave me a confidence that wouldn’t have been there without that experience.

It was immediately clear to me on my visits to schools that children in Tower Hamlets were no less capable than the children in Harrow but they lacked the material advantages of many Harrow children.However, government funding for education in Tower Hamlets was far better than Harrow but needed to be better focused.

A key part of my job as director was to raise expectations and to find ways of establishing a culture of achievement across the education service. This entailed challenging the status quo and the long-standing assumption that the level of poverty in Tower Hamlets was an insurmountable barrier to achievement. The most important task was to establish a common belief across everyone with an interest in education in Tower Hamlets that: improvement in standards was possible; schools in the borough could reach national targets and even exceed outcomes elsewhere; levels of disadvantage could be overcome and should not be used as an excuse for low attainment; and that everyone in the borough had a part to play in contributing to this.

As a new director, my first task in doing this was to engage anyone with an interest in education in Tower Hamlets in the production of a challenging strategic plan. Ofsted (1998) commented that from< 1994: ‘Strategic planning… largely came to a standstill’. The plan was produced over an eight month period of extensive engagement activities and with the involvement of schools, in particular headteachers, governors, members and the local community. Every meeting or discussion during the consultation period was used to raise ambitions and expectations. The basic premise was that anything was possible for every child in Tower Hamlets if we could just find the right means to overcome the barriers to their learning. We were helped by a new government which had identified education as its top priority and had set up a Standards and Effective Unit under Sir Michael Barber to apply support and pressure to the system. This unit had identified Tower Hamlets as a failing local authority and allocated David Woods, who went on so successfully to lead London

Challenge, as our linked adviser. This unit set borough targets for achievement in Tower Hamlets which were not negotiable.

Against this national ‘push’, the Education Strategic Plan was also used as a device to focus and prioritise. Unlike Harrow, Tower Hamlets was offered initiatives, projects and money on a daily basis. These came from the government itself or one of its agencies but also from charities, the third sector or businesses. Everyone wanted to ‘do good’.

This was laudable but diverting and saying ‘no’ became a feature of my work as director. I was supported in my determination to prioritise by the government’s focus on literacy and numeracy which became the overriding priorities for action in Tower Hamlets. We focused available resources to achieve high impact. So, for example, while we still welcomed support from businesses at Canary Wharf into our schools to help with reading, their employees were first trained in the approach we had adopted to improve literacy in the borough. Later, this focus is what prevented the local authority from developing academies. This structural solution for improvement was seen a diversion from a focus on standards and the development of good teaching and learning.

At that time, 1997/8, we needed to raise everyone’s expectations, including those of officials at the DfE whom we challenged to set higher targets for Tower Hamlets than the ones they had proposed. There was an emphasis on increasing aspirations and seeking constantly to improve outcomes further even when targets were attained. The concept of demanding targets, part of the drive to embed a culture of achievement, was a real ‘push’ factor for schools. Honourable failure, falling short of demanding target, was seen as much more acceptable than the achievement of mediocre ones. This was reflected in one of Ofsted’s findings many years later in the last of their Annual Performance Assessments: ‘The council is highly ambitious for its children and young people. The determination to overcome considerable
social and economic barriers, improve outcomes and reduce inequalities is shared by all with considerable success.’ (Ofsted, 2008).

This focus on ambitious outcomes also meant that local councillors were able to champion the high aspirations that they already held but had been unable to translate into practice. Although there was a huge amount of regeneration activity in Tower Hamlets, at that time, councillors started to see education as their strongest regeneration strategy for the borough. By 2000, when Ofsted made their first return< visit to the borough after their damning report in 1998, they found that education had become the council’s top priority and elected members had a clear understanding of the main issues needing to be addressed.

Above all, the setting of borough targets was the starting point for turning ambitions into outcomes. Back in 1997, Tower Hamlets had a small but outstanding Research and Statistics team which was universally respected by schools. When I first arrived in Tower Hamlets the team was particularly adept at showing how well we were doing compared to similar areas. They managed to do this even when we were 149th out of 149 local authorities! While I was happy to use the contextual argument with the DfE, and even other LAs, internally my mantra was no young person would ever get a job or a college place using their value added scores. They needed real results.

In the context of ambitious borough targets, the Research and Statistics team provided high quality data, benchmarked locally and nationally, accompanied with expert analysis about each school. This was followed up in various ways to create a sense of urgency. Each school was expected to translate the school-level data into target-setting for individual pupils with personalised programmes of learning. I was adamant that there could be no acceptance of what I called ‘the cohort argument’, i.e. ‘Our results will be poorer this year as we have a weaker year group’. If the cohort was weaker, the question had to be ‘What’s the nature of the extra help needed by the students to make progress and achieve?’

Most headteachers engaged well with this approach. This emphasis on ever-improving data analysis, ambitious target setting and increasing challenge to each school has continued throughout the past decade. The results show that schools have risen to these challenges.

In line with the ‘push’ aspects of ‘resolute leadership’, the local authority also showed its determination to tackle weak leadership performance. When Ofsted inspected in 1998, there were far too many schools in special measures or with serious weaknesses (the Ofsted ‘inadequate’ categories at that time). That position had improved dramatically when Ofsted returned to inspect in 2000. Over the years, decisive action has been taken where the weaknesses of specific head teachers or governing bodies were not being addressed.

The data show that, out of 48 schools in Tower Hamlets causing concern or in Ofsted categories between 1998 and 2012, 42 of the headteachers were replaced.

However clear and determined, ‘resolute leadership’ alone would not have been able to bring about sustainable improvement. That required also an allegiance to common purpose, to the community in Tower Hamlets, most particularly, to the children and young people served, and to colleagues. Moral purpose was strong in Tower Hamlets and sharpened and clarified by ambition and focus and, in particular, through the production of an Education Strategic Plan. This reflected a powerful commitment to raising educational performance in Tower Hamlets and closing the gaps between different groups.

Tower Hamlets has always had a powerful sense of place and community and this was used in active support of the actions taking place. A number of groups were long established and operated as different communities of interest. For instance, headteachers had long shared a sense of belonging to a supportive professional community. They met regularly, supported each other in a range of ways and were united against the authority. A letter of congratulations and welcome arrived within days of my appointment as director. Having been a headteacher took me to first base more quickly than if I had spent my entire working life as an officer. However, that alone would not have been enough to sustain a relationship with them. We needed to work out our respective roles and responsibilities. Even as far back as 1997, it would have been an illusion to believe a director of education had any leadership role with schools as of right. It had to be earned by close collaboration with headteacher colleagues and through a range of activities and experiences which added value to the work of the schools themselves.

A whole host of other groups, many linked closely to different parts of the community, existed, some more active than others. The production of an Education Strategic Plan created a common sense of purpose and shared direction. It required active engagement by all partners and pulled people together. The debate wasn’t just about priorities but about the objectives, actions and targets related to those priorities and that required argument before consensus emerged. Once the Education Strategic Plan was finalised, it provided the foundation for good planning and review and, most important, a clear focus for action by all the education stakeholders. It mobilised local capacity, energy and commitment. A sense of urgency was maintained by regular progress checks, involving key partners, and an annual review was shared widely with the community. The Plan was revised each year.

Considerable attention was given to building relationships and to developing active partnerships, principally with school leaders but also with governors as a collective, with parents and with third sector groups. For example, we worked with the East London Mosque to improve the attendance of Bangladeshi pupils. Business too was involved, mainly through the Education Business Partnership which initiated a number of school/business relationships that were mutually beneficial. Partnership working engendered shared responsibility and accountability.

At the same time, every opportunity was taken to celebrate and communicate success. This might be of individual students or teachers, individual schools or the system as a whole. This recognised progress and built confidence and pride in what was being achieved.

Professional power
System-wide improvement is fuelled by professional power –in particular, by knowledge, understanding and skill in teaching and learning. Professional power combines aspects of the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ concepts underpinning the previous two elements.

As indicated earlier, literacy and numeracy were major early priorities and part of the national and local ‘push’. The new government strategies were used to good effect and they had a massive impact. Tower Hamlets rolled out the strategies more rapidly than elsewhere by funding more literacy and numeracy advisers to work in schools to embed programmes. Schools appreciated the coherence and consistency of the strategies. These supported schools with a well-designed training programme and ready-to-use materials. They gave teachers the tools to teach and those children who had come to English as an additional language not only enjoyed the programmes but found their structure and discipline helpful. Children in primary schools in Tower Hamlets began to make huge progress, particularly in literacy, and it was this, I believe that has laid the foundation for the success of later years.

One of the on-going challenges was the recruitment and retention of skilled teachers, and this was supported through the encouragement of local people into teaching. The borough had experienced great difficulty with attracting and retaining teaching staff in the mid-1990s; the improvement of educational outcomes depended upon reversing this position. We were fortunate to be able to offer access to housing for teachers. We also exploited work-based routes into teaching and increased the stability of school staffing through contracts that tied teachers to the borough for a set period.

An important strand of professional power was the action to address weaknesses where they existed in schools; in particular, there was a need to improve leadership skills and to raise standards of teaching and learning. The most important initiative was the provision of a high quality professional development programme, developed by heads themselves with the support of the local authority, to help deliver the actions set out in the Education Strategic Plan. The programme proved a real ‘pull’ for staff in Tower Hamlets schools. It offered a full range of courses for head teachers, those in middle management roles, classroom teachers and newly qualified teachers, but also individual support such as individual coaching and mentoring. A Masters course was set up in partnership with a local university and the borough ran an extensive< Advanced Skills Teacher programme. Indeed, professional development was so high a priority that Tower Hamlets continued to maintain its Professional Development Centre even though this was a period when other authorities were closing theirs down. 

Improvements in teaching and learning also resulted from changes to the borough’s Advisory Services, which were radically restructured to provide a balance between strategies for supporting schools and intervention when necessary. Previously, these had carried out inspections on behalf of Ofsted, some in Tower Hamlets itself. This had caused considerable tension between the local authority and schools who saw the Advisory Service as an arm of Ofsted. We were determined that there should be a clear separation between the roles of inspection and support. To achieve this change, a programme of regular visits to monitor and review practice was instituted. Over time, officers and advisers came to have a good knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the borough’s schools and, as a result, were not only able to challenge them further but came to be valued by the schools for the advice and guidance provided.

This encapsulated a good balance between ‘push’ and ’pull’ and did much to develop a strong partnership between schools and the authority. It was also important to share good practice between schools and to ensure that everyone knew what this looked like. The local authority seconded a number of headteachers to lead this initiative, some of whom then went on to become advisers or officers. Over time, this work resulted in a more collaborative spirit between schools. It also resulted in the provision of support from higher performing schools for those which were struggling.

Although collaboration in the borough was strong, competition was never far from the surface and proved a stimulus to improvement. In a small London borough, competition between schools in such close geographical proximity was strong. This healthy competitive spirit helped schools learn from each other and aspire to do better still. This represented schools ‘pushing’ one another to achieve.

Some of the issues in Tower Hamlets were difficult to fix. The culture that developed – and the money that was available – allowed risks to be taken to innovate so that change might be accelerated. Some,such as the initiative mentioned above to improve school attendance with the East London Mosque, worked but others did not. However, the positive professional culture that developed, allowed this sort of failure to happen without blame.

When Ofsted returned to Tower Hamlets just two years after their grim findings in 1998, they commented on the rigorous progress that had been made and the large number of initiatives that had been introduced to address school development priorities, especially the emphasis on literacy and numeracy. Teaching and learning were improving and leadership of schools was stronger. Ofsted (2000) commented that standards were beginning to rise; fewer schools were causing concern; and headteachers and governors had expressed their confidence in the leadership of the local authority. In subsequent assessments by Ofsted, the positive picture continued; for example, by 2005 when the number of schools in a category of concern had been reduced from 40 in 1995 to three at the end of 2004, Ofsted highlighted Tower Hamlets’ robust systems of monitoring, intervention and support in proportion to identified needs and the improved leadership of the borough’s schools.

Linked to the improving standards in schools and the positive reports about what was happening in the borough, its external image was changing. Tower Hamlets could be promoted as a first-class place to teach and teachers were increasingly attracted by it. Staff in the borough had a sense of achievement and could take pride in working in its schools. This created a virtuous circle of confident teachers, improved teaching and learning in the classroom, and better outcomes for pupils.

Achievement in Tower Hamlets has continued to be strong. This progress relates not only to the overall outcomes for pupils in the borough but also to the gaps between the attainment of different groups of pupils. In 2013, Leunig and Wyness carried out an analysis of school attainment that took into account factors such as affluence and ethnicity. According to this report, Tower Hamlets was the best performing authority in the country. In the same year, Ofsted (2013) also found that the gap between the attainment at Key Stage 2 of pupils on free school meals and the rest of the school population was the smallest in Tower Hamlets of any authorities nationally. At GCSE, students from low income families were above the national levels, an achievement only found in two other authorities.

Ambition and confidence about performance are well embedded in Tower Hamlets. There is a ‘no excuses’ mind-set. Schools have recruited well with many young and idealistic teachers being attracted by the borough’s reputation for success as well as its strong sense of moral purpose and community. It continues to have a particularly effective and, indeed, inspiring set of headteachers who value and resource professional learning. The community is proud of its schools and eager to support them; Tower Hamlets has more people wanting to be governors than there are places.

Nevertheless, there is a fragility to sustaining improvement in urban settings that means it demands constant attention. In an area like Tower Hamlets, continuous improvement can never be taken for granted.

How does this case study relate to the role of local authorities in school improvement in 2015?
There is no single strategic response from local authorities to a more autonomous school system but they should all have a role to play in shaping and raising aspirations for learning and education locally.

All successful system reform in education continues to be a mix of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ actions and these need to be worked out locally. The core purpose remains a moral one of raising the aspirations, the achievements and the life chances of young people leaving our schools and colleges.

The four characteristics of successful reform described in the Tower Hamlets case study remain as important in a more autonomous system as they were in 1997:

• resolute leadership
• allegiance
• professional power
• sustainability.

Councillors know that education is important to local communities, in particular to parents at local schools and prospective parents. They know too that education can be a powerful force for regenerating and sustaining the life of the local area. So, regardless of the make-up of schools in their local area, most councillors want to play a role as community leader in raising expectations, aspirations and educational achievement. Their democratic base continues to give local authorities this leverage.

Acting as champions for children in their area, local authorities can demonstrate ‘resolute leadership’ by articulating a local and ambitious vision for education. For this to be widely owned and understood,there must be ‘allegiance’ to this vison. The ‘pull’ of allegiance can be stimulated by the creation of a local vision and plan for improvement tha kept alive and under regular review. This sort of attraction or ‘pull’ usually comes about from a process that engages people locally about the issues and energises them in the delivery of a plan. Such community capital remains an important support for change.

As guardians of children and young people in their area, the local authority can also ‘push’ for their interests and needs and indeed, those of their parents, by reporting publically on local quality and provision. This can also serve as an encouragement to schools, in particular academies, to demonstrate proper accountability to parents and other key stakeholders. Local authorities remain, of course, corporate parents for those children in public care.

The local authority’s knowledge of how the needs and interests of children and young people in the area are being served has to rest on a secure data base. This will largely rest on quantitative data but might also pick up softer knowledge such as feedback from councillors’ surgeries. Councils therefore need to retain a slim resource to scrutinise and capture local knowledge and intelligence about all schools, including< academies in the locality. Children in academies are, after all, still local children. So, knowing how the local authority is performing remains fundamental and can be used to generate focus and urgency.

It is the quality of this scrutiny and analysis that will largely determine the effectiveness of each local authority’s ‘resolute leadership’. If done well, it can pick up early warnings of emerging issues and can trigger action to generate action to improve. It will determine too the impact local authority reports about local provision will have, for example, on local schools, academy trusts and even on the Secretary of State.

Of the four characteristics of change identified in the Tower Hamlets case study, it is ‘professional power’ which has seen the biggest shift over the last few years. Increasingly, this is located with schools themselves as the primary drivers of systemic improvement within a self-improving system. It can no longer be assumed that local authorities are the providers, nor, indeed, the commissioners or brokers for school improvement services. It is my view that this, in any case, conflicts, or at least distracts, from their role as guardians and champions. This role needs a very clear and sharp focus.

In these early days of getting a selfimproving system up and running, local authorities have a role in supporting school-led partnerships. This might entail supporting teaching school alliances, federations and academy chains, collectives of schools, and other less formal alliances and networks. Local authorities should certainly be using and commissioning these groups to exert the professional power they once held centrally. If these school-led partnerships are not strong locally, local authorities have a role in stimulating their development and brokering connections.

The success of London schools shows that both excellence and equity are possible in an urban setting. It demonstrates that poverty does not have to be a determinant< of achievement. Individual schools can make a powerful difference but so can local authorities as they develop strategies and build partnerships that can accelerate change.


Christine Gilbert

Professor Christine Gilbert, CBE is currently chief executive in the London Borough of Brent, having previously held that post in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Christine spent 18 years teaching in schools, eight of them as a secondary headteacher. Between 2006 and 2011, she held the post of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) at Ofsted.