Ofsted contradicts Gove – success of London Challenge had little to do with sponsored academies

Janet Downs's picture

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.



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Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 12/11/2012 - 14:03

Knowing what a stickler you are for such things, Janet, I know you will take heed of the explicit warning in para 37 of Ofsted's report on London Challenge.

Looking at the relative performance of academies, the report says:

The sample is too small to make detailed comparisons with other schools, other London schools or the rest of England’s academies .....

What goes for PISA, also goes for Ofsted, no?

Patrick Hadley's picture
Mon, 12/11/2012 - 14:39

You are right. It was too small a sample to extrapolate to the rest to country. That is a further reason to criticise Gove's use of the success of London Challenge to support the academy programme.

It was Gove who gave "the deployment of Sponsored Academies" as the first of his three reasons for the success of London Challenge. He did not seem to worry that it was a small sample, nor that this factor had not been mentioned by Ofsted.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 12/11/2012 - 15:01

Thank you for pointing this out Ricky. It appears, then, that Gove is basing his statement about the sponsored academy programme being one of the three main factors for the success of the London Challenge on too small a sample.

Paragraph 37 gave details of Ofsted judgements for nineteen of the twenty LC schools which had become academies. It then compared judgements for fourteen where “historical” data was available but warned that historical comparisons should be used with caution. Ofsted made it clear that comparing performance of these academies with other London schools or the rest of England's academies would be misleading because the sample was too small.

Ofsted’s remit was to identify the key factors that made the London Challenge a success. As I made clear, Ofsted did not identify “deployment of sponsored academies” as one of these factors. And a more recent DfE report into the City Challenge programme found it was more successful that the sponsored academy programme (see sidebar).

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 12/11/2012 - 18:29


I trust your enthusiasm for London Challenge has made you re-think your attitude to Education London.

EL together with the charitable trust it sponsors (the Russell Education Trust) has been behind a number of free schools including the Bristol Free School, Beckett Keys and the King's School Hove bid. You have been somewhat sniffy about them in the past.

Yet EL were the school improvement provider for the Keys to Success schools in London Challenge, supporting 22 out of the 23 most improved London Schools.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 13/11/2012 - 16:44

Yes, I agree. It's a waste of consultants who were praised for their work in London in the little-publicised DfE report into the success of the City Challenge (see sidebar) should now have to promote controversial free schools now London Challenge has wound up. The consultants' expertise would be better spent supporting target schools in the regions.

But it's a business - and no doubt has to go where the money is. What a pity that money is more readily available for free schools than in supporting existing ones or in rolling out the factors which contributed to the success of the London Challenge as Ofsted recommended. These factors, as we know, did not include the deployment of sponsored academies.


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