Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
Image of Hilary Wilce

Vision + cash = experience

Published By: The Independent - 20 Nov 2008

A radical revolution in results and expectations is poised to take hold in secondary schools across the country if an education policy that has lifted many London schools out of failure proves effective elsewhere.

The so-called National Challenge, based on the successful London Challenge, started in schools this autumn and has the potential to transform the lives of lower-achieving pupils -- although a bungled launch has masked its potential with criticism and confusion.

The London Challenge has put an imaginative mix of money, time, expertise, data and training into schools in the capital that were stuck in failure, and made such a difference that two years ago Ofsted urged the Government to keep the programme going. Last June, the Government announced it was transforming it into the National Challenge, and that any school where fewer than a third of pupils achieved five good GCSEs, including English and maths, would be part of it. Regional challenge schemes for the Black Country and Greater Manchester were also launched.

However the 638 targeted schools resented being labelled as failing, pointing out that many were already improving rapidly. And a heavy-handed threat to close them unless they lifted themselves over the 30 per cent threshold by 201, also caused an outcry.

“But it was never a name and shame policy, it was about putting more money into schools facing difficulties,” protests Andrew Adonis, the recently-departed Schools Minister, now Transport Minister, and architect of the scheme, “We had to be frank about the problems of low attainment, I make no apologies for that, but the National Challenge will be providing £400m over three years to support seriously underperforming schools.”

The policy may also fail to capture much public attention. It works on numerous fronts at once, from improving teaching to funding outdoor education, and is much harder for people to get their heads around than big-gesture education policies such as the controversial academies programme.

But when the London Challenge was launched in 2003 results showed quickly.
Within three years school inspectors were reporting substantial improvements, and London pupils now routinely now outperform others, despite high levels of deprivation in the city. Last year forty eight per cent got five good GCSEs with English and maths, compared to 46 per cent nationally, and almost a third of London’s state secondary schools got more than 70 per cent of their pupils through five good GCSEs.

“What it does is put in the capacity, the support, when you need it,” says Hilary Macaulay, principal of West London Academy, in “We had 30 days of additional maths and science help, and the people who came in were great.”
“You can ask for help with the creative arts, or with behaviour, or anything,” says Monica Cross, head of St Matthew Academy, in south London, whose previous school was involved with the programme, “and the people who do it are responsive to individual schools, unlike the local authority.”

London Challenge is government-led and runs in partnership with local authorities, and with charities, churches and other groups working with young people. Heads can get mentoring help, join networks, and compare how their pupils are doing with pupils at schools in similar circumstances. Curriculum and behaviour support is available, there are programmes for gifted and talented pupils, and funds are on offer for school trips and residential visits. High-flying young graduates are deployed into struggling schools under the Teach First scheme, and teachers can work for – and be financially rewarded for getting -- Chartered London Teacher status, which gives them specialist skills in urban education.

An £80m second phase, running until 2011, will work with primary schools and strengthen links between universities and schools to encourage more pupils into higher education.

“Investment and reform have to go hand in hand,” says Andrew Adonis. “ There has to be a drive for reform from individual schools, close partnership working between central and local government, and strong and effective leadership from the centre.”
Part of the London Challenge involves building more academies, which are unpopular with many teachers, but Andrew Adonis points out that the Challenge has enjoyed wide-ranging support from schools, not least because one of its founders was Tim Brighouse, the former London schools tsar, and a popular champion of teachers. Tim Brighouse, in turn, attributes much of the scheme’s success to the use of “gnarled” old advisers, wise enough to understand schools’ individual difficulties and able to help them access exactly the right help.

However some heads have felt pressured to concentrate on pupils just below the C/D grade boundary at GCSE, in order to make results look good, while others have complained that the additional funding going into failing schools can adversely affect neighbouring ones.

But Andrew Adonis claims the London Challenge has revolutionised attitudes and caused everyone from heads to school leadership teams in local authorities to ‘up their game’. “At the beginning there were lots of fatalists who said we would never transform London’s schools. It simply wasn’t true.” Tim Brighouse says: “There are now more teachers and headteachers who believe that all kids can succeed.”

And inspectors reporting on the first phase of the programme said lessons learnt from the London Challenge could be used for school improvement across the country.

One school’s story

Ian Lucas, an experienced head, took over the failing Gladys Aylward School, in Enfield, north London, after six troubled years had seen results plunge and parents pull their children out. The school, on the busy North Circular Road, is in a challenging area of social churn and postcode gang warfare.

He was given a London Challenge adviser, ex-head Heather Flint, who helped the school to work with its middle leaders, bring in coaching help, and get consultancy help with maths. She also offered support in addressing poor behaviour and attendance.

“I came in with a vision,” says Ian Lucas, “and Heather was fantastic as a critical friend. She also helped us fill the vacuum while we were getting new people in place. The way it works is that there is a pot of money and a clever, menu-driven package of help on offer to schools in our situation.”

As the school struggled to find its feet, it was given a project manager one day a week to help with science, and other areas. He recommended new faculty heads, and suggested to teachers what schools they should go and visit to see good practice. He also helped with daily teaching and peer mentoring.

The school also made full use of London’s specialist teacher recruitment schemes, and now has 23 newly qualified teachers and Teach First teachers on its staff of a hundred.

Amanda Woodfin, the assistant head in charge of curriculum, says consultants have offered invaluable help, working at half-term and in the holidays, teaching targeted groups and helping remove barriers to learning. This, in turn, has given teachers more time to work with other students.

“If there was a need, we would phone and ask for it, and nine times out of 10 the response was immediate. In the past we would have had to wait for several e-mails.”

Now the school is improving fast. Last year 45 per cent of pupils got five good GCSEs. Parents linger, chatting, at the school gate, and Ian Lucas is full of plans for school and community development.