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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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.