The London Challenge was established in 2003 to tackle underperformance in London schools. Estelle Morris, the then Secretary of State, launched the scheme with Stephen Twigg, the Minister for London Schools (now Shadow Education Secretary), and Tim Brighouse, Commissioner for London Schools.
An Ofsted report in 2010 found that the London Challenge (LC) had been a great success which Ofsted attributed to:
1 Clear, consistent leadership.
2 Improvement programmes which matched strategies to the needs of individual schools.
3 Strategic deployment of support from the London Leadership Strategy.
4 Successful heads mentoring headteachers in target schools.
5 Sensitive matching of partners under the leadership of LC advisors.
6 Support, “without strings attached and without conflicts of interest”, from local authorities (LAs), external consultants or teaching schools aimed at raising the quality of teaching and learning.
7 Collaboration between schools and grouping schools in families.
8 Continuing development programmes for teachers.
9 Teachers being committed to all London children not just those in their own school.
10 The development of robust tracking systems to monitor children’s progress.
Ofsted found that heads in schools that had changed their structure, such as becoming a “trust” school or re-opening after closure, did not think changing structure contributing much towards driving improvement. These heads considered the key drivers to be:
1 Improving the quality of teaching and learning;
2 Better use of data to track pupils’ progress;
3 Timely intervention for individual pupils;
4 More flexible approaches to the curriculum.
Twenty-four LC schools had become academies – Ofsted surveyed six of them and found that in five the change of designation “appears to have separated them from the networks of support that they once enjoyed.” Ofsted noted their commitment to school improvement had narrowed and was limited to other academies. Becoming an academy, then, was not one of the main factors which contributed to the success of the London Challenge.
Heads said that changing structure was not as important as the key drivers listed above. Far from collaborating with other schools, academies tended to restrict their support to other academies. Yet Michael Gove constantly cites academy conversion as the magic bullet to improve education in schools. While it’s true that Michael Gove praises collaboration and leadership, he’s also made it clear that these are linked to academy conversion. In a speech to the Annual Leadership Conference he said “the three most important parts of the London Challenge were the deployment of Sponsored Academies, the use of outstanding schools and school leaders to mentor others and a relentless focus on improving the quality of teaching, especially through the deployment of Teach First.”
But Ofsted 2010 didn’t mention the “deployment of Sponsored Academies” neither did it refer to Teach First. Instead, it recommended that the Government should apply lessons learned from the London Challenge to driving improvement elsewhere “noting in particular the success of partnerships between schools.” The key strategies which made the London Challenge successful are listed above. It is these that Michael Gove should be promoting. Instead he ignores most of these strategies to hype academy conversion which Ofsted did not find was a key factor in improving London’s schools. Just in case Gove needs more advice from Ofsted, common features shared by good or outstanding schools are listed in its Annual Report. And academy conversion isn’t one of them.
UPDATE Correction 15.05 12 November 2012 The sentence giving the number of former LC schools which became academies is incorrect. It should read "Twenty former LC schools had become academies". Twenty-four was a typo - apologies.