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

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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