Another way is possible - and Tower Hamlets shows us what it is

Fiona Millar's picture
So much of what was predicted about the government’s free school and academies programme is now coming to pass. Independent status is not a fast track to guaranteed success. Good and bad provision exists in equal measure in all types of school and, as Henry Stewart’s posts on this site repeatedly show, maintained schools are holding their own in our complex new schools market.

In fact it now seems blindingly obvious that if you set up new schools too quickly, without assimilating them well into the local community and without adequate vetting of the providers, it is quite likely they will fail. Laura McInerney’s book “ The 6 Predictable Failures of Free Schools….and how to avoid them”, published by LKMco in the heady early days of the coalition, explained why this was likely to happen. Laura blogged passionately again on this subject yesterday (see here) in response to the news that Michael Gove is now seeking to limit the fallout from failing free schools. He only has himself to blame though. The persistent over promotion of these schools, at the expense of all others, made it inevitable that even the smallest failure would attract disproportionate attention. Spectator editor Fraser Nelson has even suggested that this failure rate was all part of the plan. To show that the market in schools could work effectively, the government would open new schools then close them when they didn’t work out.

Bonkers maybe, but there has never been a better time to focus on alternatives to this crazy policy. I suggest we start with the story of Tower Hamlets, which houses some of the poorest, and the richest, people in the country. Over 50 per cent of Tower Hamlets children are eligible for Free School Meals. It is also home to Canary Wharf and to much of London’s thriving financial services industry. The recent history of education reform in this most diverse London borough has now been chronicled in a new pamphlet “Transforming Education for all: the Tower Hamlets story” and there are powerful lessons to be learned.

Only 15 years ago Tower Hamlets education was in a mess. Ranked 149 out of 149 education authorities in terms of performance in 1997, teaching in many schools was judged inadequate or poor by Ofsted. However the local authority didn’t just cave in and hand its schools over to outside providers. It set about systematically tackling the problems it found and in the intervening years oversaw a dramatic turnaround. Whether you look at attainment, progress, narrowing gaps or Ofsted grades, Tower Hamlets’ schools now outstrip their counterparts in many of the most affluent parts of the country.

So how was it done? The report’s authors, Professor Chris Husbands, Professor David Woods and Dr Chris Brown, single out seven key themes.

Ambitious leadership was promoted at all levels, from the local authority to individual schools. This was typified by a “Yes we can “attitude, shared values and relentlessly high aspirations for all children, regardless of their backgrounds.

The council invested in very effective School Improvement. Support, challenge and intervention went hand in hand with partnership and collaboration between schools and sharing data.

High quality teaching and learning. Tower Hamlets set out to recruit great teachers, to keep them and to offer high quality continuous professional development

High levels of funding. Tower Hamlets is one of the best-funded authorities in the country and, as I have pointed out in my Guardian column today, that isn’t fair. Equally poor children in some other parts of the country, where it may be much harder to recruit good teachers, get around £3000 per head less than pupils in Tower Hamlets. Yet teachers in those areas are required to ensure their students make similar progress to those in inner London. But as the report makes clear it isn't just about the money. Tower Hamlets was also one of the best-funded authorities in 1997, when it was failing miserably. But now budgets are now managed tightly, strategically and allied to aspirational and focused leadership.

External, integrated services. School improvement was linked to other local authority interventions aimed at improving the health and well being of young people, overcoming deprivation and tackling the perennial problems of NEETs and looked after children.

Community development and partnerships. Tower Hamlets council invested in building social cohesion beyond the school gate and strengthening relationships between schools, businesses, universities and community organisations.

A resilient approach to external government policies and pressure. Tower Hamlets stuck to its guns when it came to pressure for academies, preferring to stick to its own locally grown programme of aspiration and collaboration. It also worked with the London Challenge, which was being implemented at the same time. Even today it only has a handful of academies and free schools.

There is so much more in this report than I can cover here. Particular credit for the Tower Hamlets success story must go to Christine Gilbert and Kevan Collins, the two inspirational Directors of Children’s Services who oversaw this transformation.

But in the week that even the government is tacitly admitting its reforms may be flawed, lets be grateful that there is still an alternative out there; well funded, local managed networks of schools where shared ambition trumps a focus on individualism and competition and high standards are rooted in the community.

This report makes the case for what a good local authority CAN do by using all the levers at its disposal - school improvement,  political leadership, funding, wider community interventions and multi-agency working - for the benefit of ALL children. Even the best academy chain or school federation can never match this approach. We should be grateful for Tower Hamlets for holding its nerve and proving beyond question that another way is possible.
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John Mountford's picture
Tue, 08/04/2014 - 21:46

Fiona, as a governor in a small semi-rural primary school I have a deep desire to encourage our headteacher and her dedicated staff to focus their attention on those features of their work that they know will add value to the lives and future prospects of the children. It is with mounting frustration that I resist this course of action and your excellent expose of the ongoing work in Tower Hamlets explains why this is a wise course, at least while the national education agenda remains under the dominant influence of a small number of very powerful individuals in government.

Indeed, "We should be grateful for Tower Hamlets for holding its nerve and proving beyond question that another way is possible." Unfortunately, as is clear from reading your report and from following the numerous links, such a commitment to excellence requires that certain vital elements be in place to make 'standing against the rising tide' a viable option.

Of the all ingredients that I believe make it possible to make such a stand, I would identify having a clear focus on what constitutes effective teaching and learning valued through strong and determined local leadership. Wherever teachers are supported through a commitment to provide high quality programmes of professional development, that allows them time to reflect and engage in action research in collaboration with other professionals, the quality of teaching and learning improve consistently (for example, the impact of Finland's system of supporting the continuous professional development of its teachers).

The generation of strong local leadership presents a whole different problem. This problem has been created out of the very 'reforms' that consistently claim to make education more locally accountable whilst actively dismantling the local structures that made it at least possible to oversee the development of local partnerships between schools and other service providers, so essential to meet the needs of children and families from diverse backgrounds.

I believe we have no hope of building and maintaining strong, local, federated school networks in the absence of effective local authority leadership. An intelligent observer would agree that the direction of reform is taking us further away from such an outcome. Competition, a welcome vehicle for challenge in many markets, is surely killing the prospects of our matching the achievements of many other nations who are looking in the future to develop their education systems for the benefit of ALL, rather than dwelling on past principles in a last ditch effort to preserve a social hierarchy that will damage the prospect of the many for the benefit of the few.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 09/04/2014 - 10:40

I agree that the prospects of a different direction seem remote at the moment, but remain an optimist. Eventually it will be clear that fragmentation will not lead to the systematic improvement we need and national policies will have to be revised. Ever hopeful that it will be a future Labour government that will oversee this change in direction and will be watching to see what David Blunkett's review of the local authority role brings. Should be out towards the end of this month I believe.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 13/04/2014 - 09:24

Fiona - John is right. Do you really think David Blunkett is going to propose a significantly increased role for Local Authorities in the education system? John is also right to point out that many LA's Children's Services, led by Heads of Social Services, are no longer up to the job.

Labour needs to commit to the re-establishment of LEAs and Education Committees.

I don't see this on Blunkett's agenda somehow.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Wed, 09/04/2014 - 09:42

Bore da/good morning Fiona!

Interesting lessons to be learnt from Tower Hamlets. As distant from me as London boroughs are, I was also aware of Tower Hamlets' much cited educational failure in the days when London state schools were being roundly vilified. Hardly a political programme, newspaper or politician hesitated to point to failing educational authorities in order to bewail the hopelessness of comprehensive education. I wonder if any of the detractors will be making so much mention of its success stories?

I noted from your article in the Guardian that the funding per head stood at £8000. I can see why, given the needs of the population being served and the fact that London is such an expensive place to operate in. My kids' school's funding per head, according to the mylocalschool website, stands at £4,220. The school is in Torfaen but draws from at least three other authorities. Leaving aside Monmouthshire, which is relatively well-heeled, the other authorities are fairly deprived. The catchment draws on the South Wales Valleys with all their attendant problems. I must say, a higher level of funding would not go amiss. But from all my trawling through newspapers, listening to radio programmes and reading informed websites, I am still in the dark about how funding levels are decided across the country. It seems arbitrary. Wales has its fair share of educational difficulties and I can't help thinking that a long-term underfund may well have played a large part.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 09/04/2014 - 10:43

Education is Wales is devolved so I am assuming that the funding arrangements may be different. For my article I only looked at the English local authority areas, and of course the settlement to the LA isn't the same as the sum that eventually reaches the school because of the local funding formulae. Even so the differences between different areas are stark. Maybe you should talk to your Assembly member to see how it works in Wales?

Michele -Lowe's picture
Wed, 09/04/2014 - 16:01

Off to try Nick Ramsey. Ta!

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Wed, 09/04/2014 - 21:59

what are the institutional barriers that have prevented other local authorities from following the same improvement model.

Isn't the failure of LA's to follow Tower Hamlet's example, and more widely the success of the London Challenge, precisely what drives Gove in his obdurate policies?

agov's picture
Thu, 10/04/2014 - 08:09

Excellent question Rosie.

I'll speculate and suggest that many LAs got too complacent and cosy with the way things were. Exceptionally bad places like Tower Hamlets had no choice but to reassess how they did things but most had no real incentive to do so.

When Gove descended on education many of the Tory (and other) LAs saw the potential opportunities for their friends to make dosh out of the system, which combined with that childish belief they have that everything is wonderful provided it isn't organised, so were enthusiastic to wreck the system with academies and free schools. Naturally NuLab were and are as hopeless and useless as ever and accept whatever policy the Tories want except to make it worse.

Extra cash for initiatives like London Challenge was obviously a factor in its success but the question is whether similar outcomes can be achieved without extra resources. From what I understand Yorkshire is attempting a version of London Challenge but without additional funding - hopefully that will work. Other local authorities have responded in less useful ways - throwing irrelevant and pointless 'training' at schools (- at school expense, obviously), ignoring the realities of the system, and above all doing everything possible to divert attention from their own failures. Just my impression.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 10/04/2014 - 08:19

agov - and other LAs rolled over. They bought into the Govian idea that his reforms would improve education - no other ways were possible. Lincolnshire, for example, recommended that all its schools become academies preferably with CfBT which was running Lincolnshire's school improvement service at the time.

In other LAs, withdrawal of funding means LA services to schools are scaled back. This makes academy conversion a more attractive option. In Warwickshire, for example, the withdrawal of services was a factor in Dunchurch Infants' School considering academy conversion, according to the Rugby Advertiser. However, parents and staff objected and conversion was turned down.

Back in Lincolnshire, Private Eye reported a £500,000 cutback in children's services. The MP for Grantham, Bourne and Stamford, boasted how Lincolnshire had managed to "peg" the community charge - the cost to services wasn't considered (£700,000 also cut from roads).

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