How the local authority turned around performance in local schools

  • By Paul Robinson

“It was a typical late afternoon meeting with Pam, the head, and Geoffrey, the chairman of governors, of a primary school, the council’s assistant director for standards and schools and the director of children's services – much like those held with all schools from time to time. It was scheduled as always to last 60 minutes under Chatham House rules.

"The briefing paper I received prior to the meeting was thorough. Attainment and progress by Key Stage broken down amongst others by ethnic group, free school meals and gender, with comparisons to borough average and national results, progress since the last Ofsted inspection and intelligence on SEN, attendance, exclusions, leadership and management, staff sickness levels and turnover provided plenty of contextual information. Pam, who was in her third year as a head, had been talent spotted as a deputy when working at another Wandsworth school.

"Her previous head – an excellent role model, had nurtured and supported her development – promoting her involvement in both borough and national leadership opportunities. She had needed a little encouragement to apply for headship but was now thoroughly enjoying the role. The council’s “schools’ health check” indicated she was doing well, so well in fact that she had already been approached about mentoring another head appointed from outside the borough.

"Pam began by running through each class – teaching in three classes was outstanding though one of the teachers would be leaving at the end of the summer term to take up an assistant head position elsewhere in the borough. Pam believed the vacancy created would provide an excellent position for an NQT. The quality of teachers emerging from Roehampton University in the borough, an important source of potential recruits, was first class and the council, schools and university had invested a lot in deepening relationships and clarifying expectations from each other. Support from a nearby outstanding nursery school had helped transform provision in the early years and one of the reception teachers, who had initially lacked confidence when joining the staff, was now thriving. One teacher in Year 5 continued to need a significant amount of input – his lessons tended to be dull and uninspiring and we agreed that a member of the department’s Performance and Standards team would provide some additional support. Literacy attainment had improved by 4 per cent on the previous year.

"Here the focus on writing and with individual targets for each pupil had paid dividends. In maths, however, performance had stagnated. Pam agreed that maths was likely to be a priority for the coming year. Geoffrey, the chairman of governors, nodded. It was not always like this. In some meetings, aspects of the head’s narrative appeared to come as a surprise to the chairman of governors. Pam confirmed that the rest of the teaching was good, that all staff knew what outstanding teaching and learning looked like and spoke of the productive visits to some other outstanding primary schools in the borough.

"The chairman of governors talked about his fellow governors. Everybody, he said, rolled up their sleeves – if they didn’t, they were quietly spoken to. Pam said she felt both challenged and supported by the governing body. In terms of succession planning Pam indicated she wanted to stay for at least two more years before looking for a larger school, preferably within the borough. Pam’s and the council’s judgement were that her deputy, though only having two years experience in the role, would with the right support make a very good candidate for headship, something borne out by her work alongside a newly appointed deputy in Battersea. The chairman of governors said he was happy to remain as chair for another 12 months but knew his vice chairman was willing and able to step up. We agreed that Governor Services would get in touch about supporting the transition.

"Geoffrey and Pam talked excitedly about their appearance before the council’s Education and Standards Sub Committee following their last Ofsted inspection. Challenging yet fair questions had been posed which had helped engender a sense of joint corporate endeavour in raising standards between the school and the council. Pam said that the subsequent visit by the Cabinet Member for Children’s Services and her team had raised the morale of the whole school. The councillors’ knowledge of the school and community was extensive and had resulted in some new links with a local independent school. Finally we asked about the school’s relationship with the council. A tricky personnel issue was raised, as was the implications of a new housing development on pupil numbers. Each point was noted and it was agreed that these would be followed up outside the meeting. The 60 minutes was up, the meeting finished. I accompanied Pan and Geoffrey downstairs.

"We would meet next with Pam and Geoffrey respectively at the Primary Heads’ termly session with the DCS and at the Chairman of Governors’ briefing meeting with the Cabinet Member.”


In the more than 20 years that I have worked, first as Director of Education and then as Director of Children’s Services for the London Borough of Wandsworth, there have been nine Secretaries of State for Education, five Permanent Secretaries at the DfE, six Her Majesty’s Chief Inspectors and more heads in the borough than I can readily enumerate. During this time, despite five general elections, the political complexion of national government changed only twice in 1997 and 2010, though the direction of education reform many more times. A majority Conservative council was a constant in Wandsworth and I worked for only two council leaders and three chairmen of the Education Committee/ Cabinet Member for Education and Children’s Services.

I chaired the Association of London Chief Education Officers for many years, including the period of London Challenge. I know what contributed to the educational success in Wandsworth and am confident that similar factors in other boroughs accounted for the remarkable transformation of education across the whole of London. The extract prefacing this article is just an example, one of many, of the use of various mechanisms for engaging with heads and chairmen of governors in the debate about school improvement and illustrates the factors which I believe are the basis for the rate of educational progress in the borough.

I argue first that there needs to be a willingness and capacity to learn from elsewhere – from other schools, other parts of London and broader afield and this was present in Wandsworth and across London.

Second,there existed a relentless determination to appoint and nurture good and outstanding teachers and leaders.

Third, that a pride in the locality articulated through political expectations of school and pupil achievement with some practical systems for asserting influence was present in Wandsworth.

Fourth, making the provision and use of first class school and pupil data a priority.

Fifth, getting right the relationship between school autonomy and responsibility for the wider education community and system.

Sixth, knowing schools well is vital, clearly articulating the highest expectations and acting early to ensure the improvement trajectory remains upward together with promoting confidence in the calibre of those responsible for school improvement all contributed. In Wandsworth the quality of relationships and communication allowed the focus to be maintained on those issues that impacted on outcomes for children and young people.

Wandsworth is a borough with 24 per cent of children on free school meals and 46 per cent coming from families where English is not the first language. GCSE results have risen from 38 per cent of pupils achieving 5 A*-C grades including English and Maths in 2004 to over 61 per cent in 2014. Progress and achievement in the primary phase was equally good. Over the same time period, the proportion of schools judged good and outstanding by Ofsted has risen from less than 70 per cent to just under 95 per cent - the second highest proportion in the country.

The rate of improvement in the previous decade had been similarly impressive. However, Wandsworth is not alone among London borough to achieve such positive change, so what happened?

In London where natural rivalry and striving to be the best, all reasonably commendable drives, characterised much of the relationship between councils and between schools, it always seemed logical to balance competition with collaboration and mutual support. Achieving success at the expense of others by, for example, cynically poaching good people from neighbours, though tempting was not the answer. Sustained and long lasting improvements in Wandsworth schools and consistently good outcomes for Wandsworth pupils we argued was more likely to be achieved on the foundation of London-wide success. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, though a hackneyed refrain, accurately captures one of the reasons behind London’s education success story.

Collaboration on a pan-London scale was by the early 2000s more than just a pipe dream. The London Grid for Learning Trust a broadband and related services procurement vehicle including curriculum content principally for the school sector was successful and thriving and supporting close to 100 per cent of schools. The newly created pan-London co-ordination of secondary admissions system provided a more efficient and fairer mechanism for managing the primary/secondary transfer process. Both initiatives were rightly promoted by Wandsworth with the universal support of all London councils.

School improvement also increasingly featured as part of sub regional co-operation. Opening up to others the exceptional talent of individual leaders and schools and learning from them though not as easy as it sounds became an emerging strand of pan-London work – one given significant impetus by London Challenge. To claim that this government sponsored initiative to mobilise London-wide capacity to improve schools and outcomes for children and young people was embraced by councils and schools is an understatement. During my career at least, London Challenge represented one of those few moments when the alignment of the aims of national and local government and schools was followed by agreement to the best means for achieving them with realistic implementation strategies.

The London Challenge story can be left to another time but there is no doubt that it made not merely important but arguably a unique contribution to school improvement.

Once you come to terms with the unfortunate fact that fundamentally influencing parental behaviour, one of the most powerful determinates in the development and success of children and young people in any large scale, systematic and meaningful way is not a realistic option, it is not surprising that schools and children’s centres are viewed as the main vehicle for achieving improvement. They are, after all, vehicles over which, in theory, national government and local authorities have some influence – certainly more control than over parents.

Where serious impediments to learning lie in families and the external environment these can be tackled when resources permit, through for example, the Troubled Families programme, but the reality is that the funding for such programmes, even though often effective, waxes and wanes.

In Wandsworth the formula for securing high standards in schools and in so doing raising attainment was seen as a straightforward one. The council wanted all classrooms in every school in Wandsworth populated with outstanding teachers. Given the challenge of this ambition a more modest aspiration was to appoint outstanding leaders to head up every school in the borough. Creating favourable conditions designed to enhance the chances of realising such a state of affairs required a particular political and professional approach being adopted by the council. It combined a clear vision based on high aspirations with a painstaking and methodical attention to the detail of school leadership and pedagogy. A crucial aspect of that vision was support for vulnerable children.There was and still is a moral imperative to protect and promote those who need support the most.

The council was rightly proud, for example, of its capital investment in special school and resource centre provision and arrangements for securing places for SEN pupils and those excluded or recently arriving in the borough.The education community and council were united in a willingness to be judged by the way the disaffected, awkward and vulnerable were catered for. Mobilising others to support this work, whether they be national government, diocesan authorities or latterly teaching schools and academy chains, was simply another piece of the jigsaw.

The days when Wandsworth led the campaign to abolish the Inner London Education Authority and repatriate education responsibilities to the London boroughs is now a distant memory. It is however a reminder of the passion and determination local politicians exercised in promoting the “place” they serve.

The positive impact councillors – both the executive and ward members had on schooling in Wandsworth should not be underestimated. The proceedings of the council’s Education and Standards Committee, a cross party group of councillors that engaged heads and chairmen of governors in robust, professional debate about Ofsted inspections of their schools and of themed reviews, is a testament to the way genuine detailed scrutiny can act as a spur and incentive to raise standards.

The Free Schools and Academies Commission which came later, with a similar profile of councillors but with an independent chair and representation from schools and governing bodies, was equally effective as a quality assurance body. It ensured that there was never any doubt about the council’s expectations of potential sponsors and promoters of schools. Originally conceived as a means for providing local influence on and structure for what was now becoming a more fluid and fragmented free market approach to the creation and governance of schools and designed to complement the thorough, yet distant, Whitehall approach to choosing academy sponsors quickly became an indispensible body for vetting, supporting and encouraging new and existing providers.

New Academy chains could potentially add colour, ideas and innovation to what was already a successful, diverse and vibrant school system. The council through the commission was in a position to separate the “wheat from the chaff”– to assess strengths and offer help and advice where it was needed. Wandsworth was not alone in having high calibre elected politicians with a forensic knowledge of their community and local schools who could tread that delicate line between displaying national party political loyalty and exercising independence of mind based on what the evidence locally demonstrated. However,

I sometimes wondered whether national governments truly understood the way the tireless dedication of councillors to the cause of standards in schools contributed to what was over two decades a transformation in pupil achievement in the capital.

While the Wandsworth education story would never be complete without appreciating the political dimension and localism, the platform upon which heads, governors, councillors and council officers relied to push forward school improvement was supplied by data, information and intelligence. It is stating the obvious but data and a confident grasp of how to use it, including a comprehension of what it means by those at every level in the system, including heads, teachers, governors and elected politicians was the engine that drove the steady rise in pupil achievement, not just in Wandsworth but across the capital. Outstanding and good leaders and teachers knew not only what outstanding practice looked like but they also knew in fine detail what the data told them about pupil performance – the progress pupils were making and what they should be achieving.

As the extract at the beginning of this article illustrates, data provided a common language, the evidence that sharpened accountability and the everyday tool for shaping teaching and learning.

At the heart of Wandsworth’s Education and Children’s Services Department sat the Research and Evaluation Unit which gathered and analysed pupil and school performance data and commissioned< research. While the sophisticated way such information could be compiled and interrogated, for example by ethnic groups, with comparisons with other schools, other areas and over time, was a prerequisite for any local authority or school wishing to make advances in pupil achievement, it was not enough.

Even in the 1990s heads and classroom teachers in Wandsworth were growing in confidence in using and internalising this data in their everyday planning and in all their work with pupils. A capacity at the grass roots to assess the success of teaching and learning and to engage in courageous and honest conversations with fellow teachers and heads about what needed to change was an essential aspect of the improvement agenda in the borough. This was something that Directors of Education in London as a group (and later Director of Children’s Services as a group) and the DfE London Challenge Team, including the London schools commissioner, knew only too well. One of the lasting legacies of the joint enterprise between national and local government epitomised by London Challenge was to embed a data rich culture across schools and local authorities in London.

What leaders in London were also quick to appreciate was that this work is never finished. Talented, knowledgeable staff move on and it is a mistake to assume that simply by a form of osmosis, competency in using performance data will transfer to the next generation of heads and teachers. Continual professional development, vigilance within the system – a capacity to spot where support is needed and generating a culture where it is alright to admit to gaps in knowledge and expertise and to ask for advice especially in building the use of data into classroom practice was a lesson councils and schools in London learnt the hard way.

One of the most misunderstood and misused concepts rolled out to justify education reform is school autonomy and freedom. There was never any doubt in Wandsworth that schools increasingly led by good and outstanding heads with conscientious and committed governing bodies should enjoy the confidence of the council in exercising their leadership. Headship is a responsible role. Leaders who have served their apprenticeship should be trusted to run their school as they see fit – even when things go wrong – which they do from time to time.

Wandsworth’s view was simply innovate or plagarise – what counts is whatever works for children and young people.

There are, however, important caveats. First, in an urban area like Wandsworth schools are in a symbiotic relationship with each other – proximity dictates that it be so. The actions of one school can impact on neighbouring ones and on their pupils. The sense of a community of schools where< heads, while inevitably focussing on their own institutions, would look outwards and consider the wider system – taking ownership for the outcomes of all children in the area was a feature of the Wandsworth way.

This was an ideal difficult to always reflect in practice but one everyone strived to achieve.

Second, schools and leaders experience a cycle of maturity and development. In Wandsworth everyone was aware that new, less experienced heads may welcome a helping hand from time to time. A strong school with a stable staff might expect to be asked to second a key member of staff to work in a school where turnover was high or where progress was being threatened. Pupils, whatever school they attended, were the ultimate responsibility of all system leaders – all heads. School on school support, usually brokered by the council in one of its key roles, became commonplace.

Third, the unwritten imperative was for the council to know all the schools in its locality well. For maintained schools it was essential but even for academies it seemed an abdication of duty not to understand what was going on even if national government policy appeared to place unnecessary obstacles in your way.

Such intelligence at least gave the council a chance together with the governors and leaders within a school to anticipate difficulties and nip them in the bud before becoming genuine crises which could impact directly on pupils’ performance. This capacity for early warning was a cost effective and highly efficient way to support school improvement.

As resources became squeezed the priority inevitably became schools causing concern and requiring improvement or where standards were at risk of drifting. Good and outstanding schools however also had room to improve and the challenge was to support schools including teaching schools develop the capacity to help each other. Creating the capacity to provide effective school on school support is far more challenging than policy makers are prepared to admit and the approach in Wandsworth was for the council to remain involved without generating dependency.

In Wandsworth, though, the role of the national regulator, Ofsted, was fully supported, elected councillors were clear that because of the time between the cycle of inspections, Ofsted’s lack of soft intelligence and its relative remoteness only the council was able to exercise this function effectively. Such local know how and closeness to schools also helps explain Wandsworth’s success.

Complementing this knowledge of schools was a commitment to maintaining a multilayered approach to talent spotting, a process for nurturing school leaders and maintaining differentiated support strategies for staff at all levels. The existence of a strong Wandsworth Standing Conference of Headteachers (primary and special) and strong special and secondary heads’ forums contributed to the businesslike and outcome-focused meetings with headteachers on a borough and cluster basis.

Such an approach was also mirrored in sessions with diocesan authorities and head and teacher unions.

A visit toTianjin (China) in 2008 with a group of headteachers provided first hand evidence of a system where society’s value of education manifested itself not only in parental attitudes but also in the investment of significant sums in professional development and systems for identifying and sharing best teaching and leadership practice at a local level. If endorsement was needed of the priority given by Wandsworth and other London councils to professional development albeit on a fraction of the resource, then this was it.

This third point neatly leads on to another key factor to consider. An understanding of the success of councils like Wandsworth would not be complete without referring to the calibre of the School Improvement and other professional officers. Good people are like gold dust and they made an enormous contribution to the educational success story in the borough. Gradually transforming the learning environment of schools through the investment of capital creatively secured including through an active estate management process and efficient procurement was based on political will, corporate commitment, supportive DfE officials and able education and children’s services officers.

Winning the trust and confidence of school leaders and governors – especially by those who will be challenged, coached even mentored by such officers was important. Stability in personnel, sufficient to generate mutual respect was rather critical in Wandsworth as was attending to relationships between heads, governors, councillors and council officers. Healthy and vibrant organisations and systems need first class communication, whether conveyed in person, over the phone or in writing (and e-mails need a lot of thought).

Wandsworth Council and the community of schools understood the importance of relationships and communication and how to conduct necessary, frank, yet professional, dialogue. Those who have worked in the borough know that while it is not paternalistic, the council did and does care about the individuals who lead and work in schools. There are, of course, leaders and managers who never succeeded in the borough’s schools and left –which was right for them and their schools but the underlying belief was to help and support people to become the best they could be.

This was genuine and it mattered to the school community.

Finally, a short article cannot explore the place of innovation and risk taking in terms of school leadership. Suffice it to say that engendering a culture where colour and creativity were actively encouraged, whether for example through boroughwide choral events, the development of bilingual schools or dual headships, the latter incidentally proving an effective succession planning and preparation tool, or looking at what works elsewhere in this country and abroad, tempered by a down to earth pragmatism, were all part of the Wandsworth mix.

I cannot end without referring to that rather unpredictable companion – luck. 

Appointing an outstanding head when there are only three candidates, persuading a governing body to agree to seconding their head when the omens were not originally favourable, experiencing an increasing proportion of applications to Wandsworth schools from highly motivated middle class families as results and Ofsted inspection judgements improved, or the arrival of London Challenge just at the moment when the conditions were right for London councils to take full advantage of what the initiative had to offer, all relied as much on good fortune as planning and skill.


Paul Robinson

For the last 20 years or so Paul Robinson, until his retirement in April 2014, has been a Director in the London Borough of Wandsworth, most of that time as a Director of Education and more recently as the Director of Children’s Services. In 2004 Paul received the Chevalier de l’Order des Palmes Académiques from the French Government in honour of his services to culture and education. He is a Fellow of Kingston University.