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

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.

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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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