Clegg's praise for the Labour programme scrapped by Gove points to an alternative

The Deputy PM's recognition of the success of London Challenge reveals - perhaps unintentionally - the tension between collaborative methods of school improvement and Gove’s market-based reforms.

In his education speech last week at Morpeth School, a secondary in Tower Hamlets rated "outstanding" by Ofsted, Nick Clegg noted that "if you’re a poor child going to school in some parts of Britain, you’re less likely to do well than poor children here in Tower Hamlets."  He rightly attributed this success to London Challenge, a collaborative programme involving hundreds of schools in the capital. What he didn’t say, however, was that this programme was axed by Michael Gove, along with its successful spin-offs in Manchester and the Black Country.

The London Challenge is one of the unsung triumphs of the last Labour government. When it was launched in 2003, London had the lowest proportion of students attaining five A*-C grades at GSCE out of the nine English regions. By 2010, after seven years of the capital’s best state secondaries carefully mentoring weaker schools and coaching their teachers, it had the highest. This is particularly impressive when you consider the high levels of deprivation in the capital.

Ofsted first reported on the programme in 2006 when it found that London schools "had improved dramatically and that there was much to celebrate." A second report was published in 2010, by which time the programme had been extended to primary schools. Ofsted reported that "London Challenge has continued to improve outcomes for pupils in London’s primary and secondary schools at a faster rate than nationally."

In 2011, a report by London Metropolitan University, which looked at results in Manchester and the Black Country as well as in London, also attributed the greater improvement in these areas to the City Challenge programme. This report emphasised the strong evidence-base which informed this method of school improvement: "City Challenge built on a substantial body of research about school improvement which emphasised the importance of effective leadership, networking and collaboration." The most effective strategies to improve teaching and leadership, said the researchers, took place in schools. Perhaps unsurprisingly, observing excellent teaching and receiving expert coaching within your own classroom or from another head teacher are much more effective than professional development courses.

How frustrating, then, that Clegg, even after praising London Challenge, spoke as if the need for collaboration between schools were a new discovery. Mentioning areas with underperforming schools such as West Berkshire and Shropshire and seaside towns like Blackpool or Hastings, he said: "But there are also weak schools and schools which have simply stalled…The good teachers in these schools, they want to learn from their better performing neighbours. But they don’t have a clear idea about how to start that conversation. They want to improve…But they don’t have the right leadership and skills on site to boost their performance.They can’t progress. Their schools are stalled and could do much better".

These are exactly the issues which the London and City Challenge programmes addressed. But how can Clegg reconcile his desire for increased collaboration with the coalition’s market-based reforms? The most obvious obstacle to collaboration is the current emphasis on competition to raise standards. Over and over we’ve heard that free schools will force neighbouring schools to compete, 'driving up standards.' The government is even deliberately introducing free schools in areas of oversupply so as to enhance competition. If schools are incentivised to try to attract pupils away from neighbouring schools, why on earth would they want to help those schools improve?

Clegg unwittingly highlighted the weakness of competition as a driver of improvement when he said that there are teachers who want to improve but who are held back by lack of 'leadership and skills onsite'. Competition as a method to raise standards assumes that underperforming teachers and leaders are complacent – that they know that they could improve but aren’t doing anything about it - and that the threat of a competing school is necessary to make them up their game.

But as Clegg recognises, there are lots of teachers and head teachers who already want to improve but don’t know how. Competition won’t give them the skills to improve but it will prevent many of them from accessing the most effective method of improvement. London Challenge saw the vast majority of teachers improve because the programme addressed a range of causes for underperformance. As well as helping teachers and leaders by showing them where they were going wrong and giving them new skills and confidence, it also inspired improvement in teachers who had previously been unmotivated or demoralised.

The report on City Challenge held that "perhaps the most effective aspect of City Challenge was that it recognised that people, and schools, tend to thrive when they feel trusted, supported and encouraged. The ethos of the programme, in which successes were celebrated and it was recognised that if teachers are to inspire pupils they themselves need to be motivated and inspired, was a key factor in its success."

Clegg should be pressed on this point. Would he like to bring back a national programme along the lines of the London Challenge which would, as he put it, allow schools to "learn from their better performing neighbours"? And if so, what are his views on competition between schools?

Annie Powell is a governor at a school in Southwark

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Annie Powell is a governor at a school in Southwark

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle