Local Authorities and the London Challenge

  • By Tim Brighouse

When the London Challenge was announced in 2002, some London boroughs and their leaders probably felt, as they so often do about central government initiatives, ‘Oh here we go again, another solution to a problem we haven’t got.’ Indeed when, as Commissioner of London Schools, I first attended a meeting of the ALC Education Committee I was told as much by one councillor who was so unimpressed that, after a bit of a polemic and some personal remarks, he swept up his papers and left the room.

Thankfully all his colleagues were pragmatic enough to give the Challenge the benefit of understandable doubt. I say ‘thankfully’ because with a long career in local government administration behind me, I knew that without the goodwill and co-operation of the London boroughs and the City any real success in transforming standards in London schools was remote. Without the ‘shining and focused bright light of ordinariness’ which the best local councillors bring to matters and particularly the local knowledge of context, not to mention in this case the considerable officer expertise, especially in school improvement, very little would have been possible.

If the London Challenge was a success it is of course the schools and their teachers who played the greatest and vital part, for without their skill, commitment and energy nothing would have happened. That the London Challenge coincided with considerable and nationally exceptional improvements in pupil outcomes is not now disputed. What is disputed is why it happened.

Some, for example the Bristol University economist Professor Simon Burgess, put it down to a single issue – in his case a change in the ethnic mix of the pupils in London schools with disproportionate gains from having the children of parents who have travelled from other countries seeking a better future for their families.

Quite apart from the flaws in the research which fails to acknowledge the differential impact of migrants from different countries or for example, the extent that ‘English as an Additional Language’ needs of different
groups at different ages will impact on outcomes, it seems unlikely that one factor alone will be the main driver of change in a matter as complex as education of the young. At the start of the London Challenge we assumed that many factors were involved among them what teachers and their leaders do on a daily basis in schools and it was on that factor and how we could influence it for the better that we focused.

First therefore it might be helpful to set out what we tried to do.

In essence the London Challenge involved an exercise in bringing about change for the better in a very loosely organised schooling system. At its heart was a ‘culture change’ at various levels but principally in schools and their classrooms and in at least part of the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) which was funding and orchestrating the change.

To be successful, complex cultural change of this sort needs to be underpinned by a grasp of three elements.

First, to be successful any intervention needs to allow for differences in context. What will work in one place – whether school or city or part of a city - will need to be tweaked to work in another. That requires a deep understanding of what are the key differences and how to allow for them. 

Secondly, it is helpful to have a shared map and language, in this case of ‘school improvement’, so that there is less chance of misunderstanding when people are trying to learn from each other in order to improve their practice.

Thirdly, there is the need to recognise that change often falters because of failure in communication, which is the hardest part of leadership and management in any organisation, especially one in the case of the London Challenge which involved over 400 secondary schools and 32 boroughs, the DFES and a whole set of separate stakeholders such as politicians, headteachers, teachers, support staff, governors, civil servants and, of course, pupils/students and their parents. To this array must be added the organisations which represent or act as the gatekeepers to some of these groups, such as the teacher unions, the churches, employer groups and a whole range of other agencies which could and do contribute to school success, including universities, employers, the churches and faith groups and an array of organisations in the rich world of the arts. It is small wonder that communication looms large as a perennial issue for improvement.

Any leader of complex change, especially complex cultural change, has calmly to accept that communication will fail from time to time and that it needs constant attention. In the London Challenge we thought long and hard about these three elements of change. But we also recognised a fourth element of successful change, namely the need to get the right people in the right place doing the right things at the right time. This last factor would affect the running of all aspects of the Challenge including of course vitally schools themselves.

It might be worth reflecting for a moment on why the government launched the London Challenge.

The then Secretary of State, Estelle Morris, first suggested some special initiative for London in early 2002 when a civil servant pointed out to her that 13 per cent of secondary aged children living in the capital attended private schools whereas the comparable figure for the nation was 7 per cent. This factor tipped ministerial thinking, which was already concerned that there seemed to be a general consensus among politicians and journalists that London schools, particularly secondary schools, were places to be avoided if you wanted a good education for your children. This feeling was nothing new and over the years had been reinforced by real and exaggerated stories of school failures and scandals reported in newspapers especially the Evening Standard which is read by most commuters. London also suffers from the national press being located there and journalists finding it convenient to illustrate issues by finding London cases to back them up. And bad news sells newspapers.

This negative perception of London schools was well entrenched. It had been the case at least since the 1960s and 70s when first Michael Duane’s progressive methods at Risinghill Comprehensive School and then the approaches to schooling at William Tyndale Primary School, both of which led to widely reported school failure, had contributed to a lasting impression that it was difficult to find a good state school, especially a good secondary school, in the capital. Extant statistics showed that at age 16 in 1989 in Inner London Secondary Schools, less than 9 per cent achieved 5 or more higher grades at GCSE compared with 17 per cent nationally. It is important to mark this figure for although of course, there is no reliable way of measuring overall standards over time, there is if you wish to measure the progress of different areas of the country by comparing their performance with each other and with national averages, since all will have been affected by any change in measured outcomes of standards over time.

Estelle Morris, who was the MP for Yardley in Birmingham and a former teacher in inner city Coventry, was conscious of general perceptions of schooling in the capital and felt that some focussed effort on London secondary schools would pay dividends. She first secured the agreement of the Prime Minister, whose own difficulties in securing a London state school secondary school place for his eldest son, had attracted some adverse attention: he probably therefore needed very little persuading that her idea was a good one. As Minister for Schools under David Blunkett, Estelle Morris had already played an influential part in the ‘Excellence in Cities’ initiative launched in 1991.

Blunkett and Morris’s interest in special policies and resources focused on the inner city had therefore preceded the London initiative. Moreover as Chief Education Officer in Birmingham I had been closely connected with their growing interest, first in the run-up to the 1997 election and then as a member of the Standards Task Force and as adviser to the ‘Excellence in Cities’ initiative. They claimed – at least to me - that they were influenced in making national policy by what they perceived as the apparent success of policies and practices in Birmingham and in particular by our approach to school improvement.

So when the idea of doing something special in London and the job of London Schools Commissioner was advertised I had just retired at the age of 62 after 10 years in my post in Birmingham.

The civil service was well prepared for running the London Challenge. A small unit of five ‘fast track’ young staff led by Jon Coles had already begun work on how to spend and organise the budget earmarked for the Challenge. Jon Coles was outstanding among his generation of civil servants: a Cambridge maths graduate who had trained to be a teacher, he knew his way around the Department and was widely respected. His analysis of the data and the socio-economic background of London together with a mutually agreed approach to school improvement across all the capital’s secondary schools formed the basis of what was to become the prospectus for the London Challenge. By the time it was officially launched in April 2003 by the Prime Minister at The Globe, it had gone through many iterations and much work had already begun.

Jon Coles believed that whatever ministers could afford as extra for the London Challenge should, where possible, be aligned with the existing national programmes and strategies to support our efforts.

As we put the prospectus together, I argued strongly that there needed to be a change in language. It was vital to realise in everything we said, wrote or did we were conveying an impression either positive or negative to staff in schools on whom we relied entirely to achieve anything. If we could energise and upskill them even marginally, improvement would happen. To keep talking of ‘zero’ tolerance of ‘failure’ was to emphasise the wrong thing. Successful teachers know that when they are successful with a pupil’s failure to learn, they use three parts of ‘appreciative enquiry’ – genuinely assessed of course - for every one part of ‘problem solving’ in feedback to pupils. The same is true of adults. The New Labour mantra of ‘challenge and support’ needed to be inverted.

I was all for challenge but more in the spirit of speculative questioning in the context of being supportive of what schools were doing. It isn’t that you shouldn’t confront failure: of course you should, but surely in the context of giving those in schools, at least initially, the benefit of the doubt, you should assume they start from the position of wanting to succeed. ‘Name and shame’ should be replaced by ‘no blame’ – at least in public.

In the final prospectus there are two examples, one illustrating this change of emphasis and another failing to do so. First there was a group of schools across London whose headline results on 5 or more, higher grade GCSEs were unacceptably low. Many of these schools were in a ‘special measures’ Ofsted category. To call them ‘failing’, or in conversation refer to them as ‘sink’ schools, as was happening, would be unlikely to give them the energy to improve. It was arguable that they were in fact ‘keys to the success’ of the London Challenge since if they could succeed, given the challenges they faced, including being at the bottom of the pecking order when it came to parental preference, then any school could and should succeed. They needed and deserved our support based on the initial assumption that they had within them most of the capacity to improve, if they were given extra well targeted support. So they were to be referred to as ‘keys to success’ schools and, as such, represented an example of something important but easily overlooked as part of the success of the London Challenge. Not so the five London boroughs whose overall headline figures were unacceptable. Despite my arguments to the contrary, they were labelled ‘failing boroughs’ presumably because the principal audience in that category were politicians rather than schools. Nevertheless I shall not forget the discomfort I felt at the launch in meeting the eyes of their Chief Officers. For me it was a minor defeat.

We had realised, as I outlined at the beginning of this piece, that the support and input of intelligence and expertise from boroughs was essential in every aspect of the programme. Initially I was involved, with Jon Coles, in attending the monthly meetings of the London Chief Education Officers outlining ideas and using them as a genuine sounding board for what we were going to do. I thought they would recognise me (from my background as CEO in Oxfordshire and Birmingham) as ‘one of them’. It would be invidious to pick out any individual for all were extremely co-operative and supportive but their chair at that time Paul Robinson was incredibly helpful. Jon Coles saw the group as a ‘must’ in his busy diary.

Both of us (Jon Coles and myself) were also fortunate in our ministers Stephen Twigg and then Lord Adonis who were in their very different ways so willing to form links with the councillors and cabinet members in the various boroughs, defusing crises or solving potential barriers.

We invested in studies of tricky pan-London issues by funding two or three boroughs in each case working together to find solutions to tricky issues such as parts of SEN provision or a common admissions system. Those studies were invaluable in outcome but tended to happen below the radar of press and media attention.

As the London Challenge was above all a school improvement exercise much of what made the most difference was going on at the level of schools and the school improvement services, with their different strengths in each borough which still existed at that time. They would liaise with the small group of part-time advisers. I later came to refer to them affectionately as our gnarled advisers. Each could point to long and successful experience in schools. An essential common factor in their approach was that they recognised that there was more than one way to lead schools successfully and that the context of time, place and people was a key determinant in how to go about things and what to do in any particular school. The, at first informal, and then more formal leader of this group was David Woods with whom I had worked in Birmingham where he was Chief Adviser before he had taken up a role at DfES with Michael Barber at the Standards Unit.

This group of advisers would meet weekly, sometimes fortnightly, along with Jon Coles and some of his small team, where we discussed progress of individual schools and ‘school improvement’ more generally. It was there therefore that we would share what I have referred to earlier as the second element essential to ‘cultural change’ namely to establish a shared language and map in this case of school improvement. For me it was learning ever more about seven processes which are the everyday life of schools, namely leading creatively; managing effectively; reviewing creatively, developing staff imaginatively: creating an environment fit for learning; involving parents and the community; and of course first and last teaching, learning and assessing.

Backing these processes was the use of a statistical device we had used to promote school improvement in Birmingham. It had been created there by the statistician John Hill. Schools were put into ‘families’
according to the socio-economic background of their pupils. Then all the schools in the family were compared on a graph with the vertical being rate of improvement and the horizontal points per pupils with the intersect representing the average for the whole family. So a school would be in one of four quadrants – low rate of improvement and low points per pupil; high rate of improvement and low points per pupil; high rate of improvement and high points per pupil; and low rate of improvement and high points per pupil. To be really useful the figures used should be three-year rolling averages. Then all the results in all
subjects in all schools are shown. The hope was that schools would be prompted to visit apparently similar schools achieving very different results both overall and in individual subjects.

It was interesting that in Birmingham and in London there was an initial reluctance to use the data in this way for fear of heads objecting that it would create adverse publicity. It was my view such reservations were misplaced since the media were sated with data. In both cities that proved to be the case and a device was created which, in the hands of creative heads hungry for improvement, could prove an invaluable aid.

Coupled with the London element of the National College’s work, it was possible to bring about ‘school to school’ learning and support well beyond borough boundaries. It says much for the London boroughs that without exception they welcomed the advantages which such activities created for teachers, school leaders and, through them, pupils.

There is much else that could be said about the London Challenge – the establishment of a better supply of better qualified teacher and their subsequent retention, the way in which teacher professional development was brought centre stage with the Chartered London Teacher initiative, the Student Pledge. All had an impact.

The questions to be answered are fourfold. Is there any which was an essential ingredient? Are there other factors which acted as exceptional catalysts? What part did the unique governance arrangements in London play in the success? Are their factors which if addressed would have allowed even more success?

The answer to the first is surely that teachers and their school leaders have to be driven by a moral purpose and certainty of pupils’ success that brooks no denial. Without that nothing exceptional will happen. How that is communicated and shared is elusive. But the focus we had in the London Challenge on establishing cultural change to support that surely bears some closer examination.

The answer to the second – were there exceptional factors - must include the Family of Schools Data base, the carefully tailored work by the Challenge advisers and their partners in the boroughs with individual ‘keys to success’ schools, the focus on professional development, the work on teacher recruitment (particularly ‘Teach First’) and retention, the leadership strategy backed by the National College, and the extra resources to lubricate all these changes.

The third question is more complicated. To make the best of 32 boroughs, the GLA and the Mayor, not to mention the various silos within the DfE, requires a problem solving skill analogous to solving the Rubik’s cube. Nevertheless there was a goodwill from all parties that carried us through the various misunderstandings bound to occur.

As for the last – was there something which could have made it even more successful? – the answer must be yes. I, at least, am only too keenly aware of opportunities I missed and of not getting the right people in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing, in the right way. Some school communities suffered as a result. The fault for all that went wrong is hard personally to avoid. The credit for what went right – and there was much – must lie with the school staff themselves and those working closely with them not just the advisers in the Challenge team but in the London boroughs themselves.


Tim Brighouse

Tim was born in Leicestershire (1940) and brought up there and in East Anglia, he attended state schools and took a degree and PGCE from Oxford. Then he taught in Grammar (Derbyshire) and Secondary Modern (South Wales) schools before starting a career in educational administration in Monmouthshire. After spells with Buckinghamshire and the Association of County Councils he became Deputy Ed Officer (I.L.E.A) and Chief Education Officer, first in Oxfordshire 1978-1989 and then Birmingham 1993- 2002. He was professor of Education at Keele University in the four years between those posts. His last full-time post was Commissioner and then/Chief Adviser for London Schools (2002-2007).Tim has written books and articles on education, broadcast and spoken at local, national and international conferences.