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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.

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

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