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Getting alongside – not on top of – teachers doesn’t have to be the soft option

The Institute for Government’s new case study on implementing the London Challenge should show new Education Secretary Nicky Morgan how to build an empowering relationship with teachers.

Nicky Morgan replaced Michael Gove as Education Secretary this month. Photo: Getty

As secretary of state, Michael Gove was a polarising figure. His bold agenda – encompassing mass academisation, free schools, curriculum reform and much else besides – met with strong support in some quarters, but also vocal criticism from parts of the teaching profession.

Although he was reshuffled last week, it is unlikely that the package of reforms already in place will change significantly between now and the general election. Instead, Morgan and returning minister for schools, Nick Gibb, will be looking to continue the implementation of remaining reforms, embed them more firmly in schools – and win over at least some hearts and minds in the teaching profession.

It is on the point of winning hearts and minds that the new DfE team could learn from our case study on the London Challenge, published last week. From 2003 to 2011, ministers and officials worked closely with senior educationalists to establish a headteacher-led programme of school improvement across the capital. During this period, there was a remarkable improvement in school performance and London schools moved from the worst to the best in the country. As with the current reforms, there were many different policies affecting schools during that period, but a recent study has reinforced the importance of London Challenge in that improvement. But what marked out the approach taken by central government to get this policy delivered?

As one interviewee told us, London Challenge was about ‘getting alongside, not on top of, teachers’. Some of this was about how it was framed from the outset; most notably, eschewing the stigmatising language of “failing schools” and instead using the term “keys to success” to describe priority schools for intervention. But it was also about constant engagement with schools and local authorities – by ministers, officials and the professionals that they had brought onboard. Sir Tim Brighouse, Chief Adviser for London Schools and a successful former Chief Education Officer, played an important convening role for ministers. He helped to win over school leaders who feared London Challenge was yet another Whitehall imposition by creating spaces in which concerns could be aired, and fitting it into a narrative that ministers or officials would have struggled to offer.

But government didn’t just leave it to the professionals. The Ministers for London Schools, first Stephen Twigg and later Andrew Adonis, were active and interested in their dealings with schools. Rather than different reforms competing for the attention of hard-pressed headteachers, efforts were made in the Department to tailor national initiatives to London. But the quid pro quo of support and collaboration was a hard line on persistent failure. There were lots of carrots – small pots of money for everything from smartening up a school reception to deploying teacher cover for a maths department that had experienced sudden turnover. But where schools didn’t help themselves there could also be sticks. In particular, school closures, federation with a neighbouring school or imposition of sponsored academy status and a new management team, were options open to the Department that were used sparingly but forcefully.

Lessons are hard to learn in government. The previous government did not even learn from its own experience, and the rhetoric of London Challenge was misapplied by Ed Balls, during his time as Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, when he introduced the similar-sounding National Challenge which was resented by teachers for revisiting the combative ‘naming and shaming’ of underperforming schools. But with less policy to launch and more to land in the coming year, Nicky Morgan may want to spend her recess with our new report, Doing them justice, which brings together these lessons from London Challenge and three other case studies about seeing policy through to successful implementation.