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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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.