Trevor Fisher: London Challenge and the ethnic factor

Janet Downs's picture
This was posted on behalf of Trevor Fisher who had difficulty posting the thread.

Since the Black Papers of the 1970s, education debate has been dominated by the headline – State Schools Fail – in various guises. Yet on one key issue, London Schools, the question is now about success. No one disagrees that London schools have massively improved test and exam scores. But what caused the success after 2003, when the results were abysmal? Until recently the government programme called London Challenge was given the credit, even though Gove closed it in 2011 favouring other initiatives. Since then, other reasons have been given and in the Guardian of 23rd February an extensive airing was given to the idea that ethnic factors and ethnic diversity alone were responsible. The paper questioned political support without looking at the wider debate on what has been accepted as the most successful school improvement programme of the recent past – London Challenge, under Professor Tim Brighouse, which sought bottom up change – with success.

Questioning London Challenge has been ongoing for some time. Matthew Hancock on Question Time in February 2014 put the results down to Academies and the work of Andrew Adonis. Since then more heavyweight thinkers have produced three reports stressing either improvements in low achievers (Social Mobility Commission-Institute for Fiscal Studies), or a mix of initiatives including Teach First (CfBT and partners) or the ethnic factor, defined by Professor Simon Burgess at the Centre for Market and Public Organisation at Bristol University. This is now prominent after Trevor Philips, former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission raised it via the BBC. The wider debate, now covered by the new pamphlet from SOSS The London Challenge and the London Effect, has alas been put into the background.

The Burgess position is that as with the Tiger Mums syndrome, aspirational immigrants with a high work ethic force their children to work hard and achieve at school, and as London has more of these the immigrant performance raises achievement. To be fair he also argues that as London is more integrated than elsewhere, the classroom performance is raised more than in less diverse locations due to pupils learning from each other. However that factor did not make it to the Guardian article.

The Guardian reporter, Sally Weale, focussed on Glassmore Community School in Tottenham – presumably not an Academy – which had improved its results dramatically under a head, Tony Hartney, who had been there since 1999. He pointed out that the ethnic composition of the school had not changed while its results had been transformed, contradicting Burgess. The use of a single school allowed Burgess to say his analysis is based on averages and so some schools may be exceptional, which is a fair point. However the article quoted Kevan Collins, working in Tower Hamlets, who pointed out that Bengali kids in the borough do better than in Bradford, and that “Bradford's performance has not been comparable to that of London”. Sadly a wider comparison between London and Manchester and especially Birmingham, the latter in particular having done well at GCSE, was not picked up by the Guardian.

For the immediate debate, it is clear that while Burgess has forced scrutiny of how ethnic groups perform, we have no clear grasp of either ethnicity – it is not easy to define – or whether the performance of recent arrivals is above or below long standing immigrants. Phillips himself argues the importance of assessing performance in different ethnic groups, and data has to be robust. If long established immigrant groups are now performing better than two or three decades ago, ethnicity alone could not be the reason.

More importantly, Burgess is taking for granted two key factors which critically affect performance, the existence of schools and their staffing. Shortage of school places is now developing, affecting performance, where this was not an issue policy makers had to consider a decade ago. Even more crucial, the staffing of schools which was a major problem in London in 2002 when London Challenge was devised has been resolved. A stable, confident and skilled teaching force is key to success, but in 2002 staffing in London was unstable and of unreliable quality. This was an issue that London Challenge explicitly addressed, and whose resolution must be one of the great achievements of urban education. It cannot be taken for granted - staffing is uncertain.

Collegiality – developing links between and within schools – was also critically important, particularly for teachers in challenging areas. Learning from successful examples rather than innovating without proper support and assessment structures has to be more beneficial. Students don't teach themselves, so any assessment of success must look at the work force. Is it accidental that the Guardian's chosen school has a head who has been in post for sixteen years?

There are no miracle solutions or silver bullets, and while academies were marginal to the improvement – only 30 in the first five years of London Challenge – Teach First and other initiatives may well have been significant. It is a sorry comment on the innovation work of the DfE that there is no serious evaluative body which could make comparisons. Burgess at the end of the Guardian article argues “We can make better public policy if it is based on evidence”, and this is true. But the evidence has to be more than statistical, particularly where ethnic stats are hard to define. It is unlikely that one programme transformed London Schools. But London Challenge, operating in the specific period after 2003 when improvements began to happen, and at pace, cannot be relegated to a back seat.

That London Challenge operated in the period 2003-11 when improvement took off and schools became attractive to staff and to parents is hardly accidental. This was the objective, the methods were well designed and allowed for bespoke solutions, and those involved, particularly in the schools, were positive about the experience. London Challenge remains the most plausible explanation for the clear improvements in London Schools since the second Blair government. It remains the favoured strategy for Labour and now the Scottish Nationalists, while in Wales 40 schools are taking a Challenge type approach. However London Challenge needs to be set against other factors to work out what genuinely improves schools – and what factors make headlines but have no real effect on the ground.

The SOSS pamphlet The London Challenge and the 'London Effect' is on sale in PDF and hard copy form from the Symposium on Sustainable Schools. The previous pamphlet on the Gove exam reforms, 'Exam Reform, Unresolved Issues – the risks and effects in focus' is also on sale in PDF and hard copy format.
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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 27/03/2015 - 09:40

Way back in 2012, a thread on this site noted a growing tendency for politicians and others to claim credit for the rise in performance in London schools.

Sally Davenport, the author, asked this question:

'Should we believe that it’s all down to Adonis and Gove and tippex out Tim Brighouse’s work?'

Gove had said sponsored academies were responsible. They weren't (see here). There were very few academies in the programme and the small number became sponsored academies during the programme. And there were no sponsored academies in the primary sector which was also included in the London Challenge.

The contribution of Teach First is also exaggerated. The programme was in its infancy when the London Challenge began. The Ofsted report into London Challenge didn't mention Teach First at all. Ofsted did, however, credit initiatives such as the 'Improving Teacher Programme' which helped 600 primary teachers (Teach First didn't send trainees to primary schools), 'teaching schools' and the 'Outstanding Teacher Programme'.

Trevor Fisher's picture
Fri, 27/03/2015 - 10:48

thanks for this Janet, very helpful. To access the SOSS site which we are developing and get to where the pamphlets are on sale, please google and go to the publications section. Should work, but site still being developed.

Given that the challenge strategy was used in the Black Country, Manchester, is still operating in Wales with positive reports, and the Scots Nats and Labour plan to roll it out after the election, it is worrying that debate still does not accept that this was the key factor in London improvement.

In what kind of society does government spend large amounts of money without accepted techniques for evaluating what works and what does not work?

Trevor Fisher.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 27/03/2015 - 11:31

Trevor - no need to google the web site address - just click on the section highlighted in blue. Any blue text usually contains a link to a source whether website, article of report.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Fri, 27/03/2015 - 10:58

It interests me hugely that the London Challenge and its successes have not been more widely trumpeted. I wouldn't expect Gove or his successors to be shouting from the rooftops about it as it pre-dates them and travels in the opposite direction from the Academies programme. But I am surprised and not a little disappointed that other political parties have not picked up on it. And as for media coverage, precious little.

In Wales there is much interest in the London Challenge and adapting it to our circumstances. We, in common with Scotland and Northern Ireland, don't have any interest in going down the academies route. Wales is pre-occupied by poor showings in the PISA leagues and the significant lack of educational attainment in the post-industrial areas, i.e. the South Wales Valleys. The low-paid economy dominates and to state the patently obvious, what's the point in raising your game academically if there's so little to raise it for. Unless your only wish is to escape, in which case we're educating the next generation to leave taking their talents with them. Realistically, this is what a Tiger Mam (ambitious Welsh mother) would do. I don't know Bradford, but I imagine they're grappling with similar post-industrial scenarios and perhaps ethnicity is less a factor than local circumstances.

I'm glad the term Tiger Mums is getting an airing, because, although it's a bit dismissive,
it highlights an important feature of children's academic success: that mums do the lioness' share of the spade work. Look around you at any parents' evening and you will see more mums than dads. Same at the school gate, though in my local school you do see older men - granddads. As Woman's Hour frequently points out, education is a higher electoral priority for women than men. When I do my two afternoon stints reading with kids at primary age, most report that they read at home with mam. Good home-school partnerships make a real difference. A joined-up approach to education like the London Challenge would key into this demographic very well.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 27/03/2015 - 11:34

Michele - a favourable DfE report into the City Challenge (the nationwide initiative like the London Challenge) wasn't publicised. This is likely to be because it found the City Challenge was more successful than the academy programme. This, of course, is not what Gove and others wanted to hear.

Mel Ainscow's picture
Sat, 28/03/2015 - 09:03

It is good to see that serious debate is now taking place that respects the complexities involved in system change. Too much attention has been placed on searching for simple explanations of what has happened in London and in the other City Challenge initiatives.

In my new book,'Towards self-improving school systems: lessons from a city challenge', I reflect on what happened in the Greater Manchester Challenge. The recommendations I make start from the assumption that schools have the capacity to improve themselves, particularly if they do that together. The obvious implication is that teachers and school leaders are the key to successful change.

With this in mind, the strategies developed in Greater Manchester helped to foster new, more fruitful working relationships: within and between schools; between schools and their local communities; and between national and local government.

All of this requires government to recognise that the details of policy implementation are not amenable to central regulation. Rather, these have to be dealt with by those who are close to and, therefore, in a better position to understand local contexts.

John Mountford's picture
Sat, 28/03/2015 - 15:55

Another solidly researched piece. Thanks, Trevor. My last school was a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic junior school in Wollwich, so I have a special interest in the London Challenge. It all kicked off shortly after I retired but I am not surprised at the success it enjoyed. I felt privileged to head up a team of wonderful teachers and support staff and can imagine how they responded to the challenges. However, my comment is directed to Mel.

Mel, my comment about my former colleagues picks up on your remark about the capacity that "schools have the capacity to improve themselves, particularly if they do that together." I reject the notion, supported by successive governments, that school improvement requires a raft of policy initiatives. It is, as you write "teachers and school leaders are the key to successful change. Finally, in your comment you write, "All of this requires government to recognise that the details of policy implementation are not amenable to central regulation." Would I be presuming too much if I read into that some sympathy for the notion that the time may have come for our society to reappraise the role of politics in the governance of education, in particular the functions of the government of the day? Is it not the case, under the present system, that we have sufficient evidence, from decades of punctuated policy reform, to declare that centralised political control of education does exactly what you say it does in taking power away from those "in a better position to understand local contexts"?

With the formatiom of a National Education Commission, responsible for the governance of education reform, would this not allow for the creation of a more effective mechanism for increased local oversight, with greater collaboration between schools and professionals and eventually the development of a feedback loop responsive to local conditions and responsible to local communities, thus ensuring that 'none are left behind?

Mel Ainscow's picture
Sat, 28/03/2015 - 18:03

John, I think I am generally heading in the direction you propose. I think that the current policy context, with its emphasis on school autonomy, has led to some worthwhile innovations of the sort we need in order to make our education system more equitable. The problem is that it is also leading to a dangerous fragmentation that will, I fear, further disadvantage learners from poorer backgrounds. All of which suggests that ‘educational market places’ need some form of checks and balances.

The approach presented in my book outlines a new way of thinking about how this can be achieved, based on lessons from City Challenge. This requires that the ‘checks and balances’ come from mutual accountability amongst all of the stakeholders. In his brilliant foreword for the book, Andy Hargreaves suggests that this approach involves: ‘…working with the community, not against it; investing in professional and community capital; reviving rather than removing local community and democracy; collaborating with competitors; and being pragmatic about means in the pursuit of ideologically unshakeable ends.’

There are, I believe, important implications here for the future roles of local authorities. They have to adjust their ways of working in response to the development of improvement strategies that are led from within schools. Specifically, they must monitor and challenge schools in relation to the agreed goals of collaborative activities, whilst head teachers share responsibility for the overall management of improvement efforts within schools. In taking on such roles, local authority staff can position themselves as the conscience of the system: guardians of improved outcomes for all young people and their families. A vital part of this role is about ensuring that the success of one school is not achieved as a result of the failure of another.

Trevor Fisher's picture
Sat, 28/03/2015 - 18:28

this is a very positive debate, and the overall thrust to look at all the challenges has to be taken forward. Given the belief in the Westminster Bubble that the key moves have to be made from the top, imposing solutions that can be 'rolled out' across territories like the wagons rolling across virgin territory in the American West (ignoring the native Americans who happened to be in the way), there is a major challenge here. I doubt if many politicians are looking at this discussion.

The discussion has to become a national - indeed UK wide debate including Scotland and Wales. This is not going to be easy, the media are themselves Westminster (or in Scotland Holyrood) oriented, and the idea that the best developments are from the bottom up is one that doesn't appeal to people who are focused on the latest headline catching initiative.

So, its not going to be easy to change the focus. There is not enough literature and not enough research taking place, and it remains London focused and not easy to see clear patterns - which may be a sign that the reality is too complicated for easy study. The debate has started however and we need to get the media to see that there are no silver bullets or magic wands. That is a daunting task, but it is heartening to see the contributions here and it is hopefully a pointer to a better level of understanding of school improvement in the future that alternatives to top down imposed solutions are starting to have serious discussion.

yours sincerely

trevor fisher.

John Mountford's picture
Sat, 28/03/2015 - 19:07

Thanks for your reply, Mel. I note your thought about a growing emphasis on school autonomy. I believe this is becoming more convincingly articulated by those committed to building a system responsive to the needs of more disadvantaged pupils. The consequence of such a development would, I feel, be to improve equality of educational opportunity for all pupils. Maybe rather naively on my part, I think that in spite of the innovation fatigue that afflicts professionals at present, there is an acceptance that we now know enough about how to move forward with meaningful, long-term reform. The missing ingredients are that of ineffective national leadership and a willingness to challenge the status quo about education governance.

The danger of fragmentation that you speak of is undoubtedly driven by the extreme politicisation of the service in the present set-up. In my view, it is crucial that local accountability, under the auspices of newly constituted and properly funded LEA's, has to be a primary objective in order to ensure all schools have access to effective support to assist them in contributing to the quality and diversity of schooling in their area.

The problem of political interference from the centre has weakened the role and effectiveness of the old local authorities to deliver the kind of service we speak of. Likewise, the politically motivated system of monitoring by testing and the punitive inspection process have adversely affected schools, leading to such regrettable practices as 'teaching to the test'. These and other barriers to creating really improved educational opportunities for our young people will, I fear, remain unless a coalition of the concerned campaigns to bring about a new form of governance for education, as I call for at

John Mountford's picture
Sat, 28/03/2015 - 20:27

Slight error, there. I obviously intended to say that what is missing is effective national leadership. Obviously, we already have far too much "ineffective" leadership.

John Mountford's picture
Sun, 29/03/2015 - 00:32

Michelle, I went to school in the Rhondda Valley at a time when there was still the aspiration for children to be well educated in order to access a "better life" than their parents. It was also a time when it was possible to walk out of a job in the morning and find another before the day was out. Few from my background had any hope of attending university but those who wanted work, as I say, were able to find employment. Many of those jobs were not highly paid but they were real opportunities, on which it was possible, over time, to build a viable base to raise a family. It was a time, whether it was appropriate or not (I believe it never was), when getting a job when you left was the primary objective of schooling. There were large numbers of apprenticeships across a wide range of trades and skills, offering the chance of greater social mobility.

Much has changed in my lifetime. Nowhere is this more evident than in the post-industrial areas you mention. Though seemingly defeatist, there is a profound message contained in your comment, "what’s the point in raising your game academically if there’s so little to raise it for?" We are never going back to the times I describe. The problem is we seem unable as a society to find our way forward and yet, as this article by Trevor tells us, initiatives like City Challenge can offer fresh hope for communities. But what is the challenge? I believe it is to shape a new era of human development.

To do this we will need to be bold and innovative. We will need to pool our resources around local centres of leadership, and education has a key role to play in this.

Is there value in challenging the old, flawed perception that the primary aim of education is to prepare people for employment?
Yes, I believe we have to do just this.

Where automation and the introduction of new technologies is likely to replace many existing jobs, how are we to preserve human dignity for all citizens in the post-industrial global community?
I believe this can be achieved by providing everyone with some sort of 'learners licence', affording them continued access to support for the acquisition and development of new skills and knowledge, and the nurturing of positive/aspirational attitudes.

Is the current preoccupation with international testing of pupils justified or necessary?
NO. By continuing to do this, the focus on a broad and balanced curriculum is in danger of being systematically weakened. The connection between opportunities for individuals to compete on the global stage is over-rated and the importance of individual wellbeing is marginalised at increasing personal cost to many.

More and more families are under increasing pressure to cope with the challenges of setting up a home and raising their children in the prevailing financial climate of austerity. Changes to patterns of employment make planning for the future more difficult. No one is prepared for a life with little or no work. As things stand, for some, education offers no solutions. It should not be this way.

Like family life, education is under pressure to adapt. It has to change if we are to move forward. The greatest single barrier to this has to do with the cycles in political life. There is an expectation that politics should change the lives of citizens for the better. Democratic societies set time limits on governments. Thereafter, their performance is reviewed with a view to replacing them. In general this works. The one glaring exception is in relation to education reform. The solutions required in reforming education take time to agree on and even longer to implement and evaluate. Under the present system it is not possible to guarantee sufficient time for this process to unfold before the next government is formed with different priorities for the service.

The increasing intervention of successive governments in education has weakened the capacity of local communities to arrange and oversee education provision. There is a growing consensus that support has to be available at the local level to enable schools to improve at the same time as holding them to account. This transfer of authority to locally accountable politicians has to be made under a new arrangement for national governance of education. By forming a National Education Commission, directly accountable to parliament, education would be set free from the electoral cycle and given the long-term priority required.

It is my view that we have at our disposal all that is needed to make this new arrangement work. We need to get on with the task.

mistemina's picture
Tue, 07/04/2015 - 12:03

Michelle Lowe,
Thank you for your comments on Tiger Mums.
We in Bucks suffer from an out-of-control Selection System which is the number 2 reason for underachievement in this Count (we have the largest Gap in the UK).
We hold an annual day for parents on help for their children. I will propose Tiger Mums as a stand-alone workshop.
All contributions on the contents for a Tiger Mums Workshop will be appreciated from all.
Previous agendas, links, all welcomed.

Trevor Fisher's picture
Thu, 09/04/2015 - 11:01

I tried to comment but could not post. Trying again. On Tiger Mums, there is evidence against the approach from the US - which should be made available. However we need to go beyond blogging to networking. Blogging is a placebo and we need extended debate. Most blogs don't last more than a week.

We hope the new SOSS website will help when fully developed. For the moment, the pamphlets on exam reform and London challenge are available from

There is a persuasive book by a Tiger Mum well circulated. The responses have alas been limited.

Trevor Fisher

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