Making Sense of Policy in London Secondary Education: What can be Learned from the London Challenge? (Executive Summary) - Vanessa Ogden
Making Sense of Policy in London Secondary Education:
What Can Be Learned From the London Challenge?
Vanessa Ogden, July 2012
Writing this thesis was an iterative process involving a dialogue between my research and
my practice. The Doctor of Education degree offers an opportunity for practitioners to
interact with literature and empirical research at doctoral level, creating new knowledge
about professional work in education. There is a professional imperative for educators to
be informed about their field at higher level and to become ‘expert practitioners’. It is in
this spirit that the thesis was undertaken.
The thesis is relevant to my own professional context in two main ways. First, it concerns
school leadership in secondary education in London, an urban environment with specific
challenges to do with the relationship between education and place. For example, there
are many London communities in which affluence sits cheek by jowl with poverty. This
has a profound effect on schools and the dynamics that affect them. Second, it concerns
the policy environment in which school leaders have to operate. Contemporary education
changes rapidly and understanding more about the historical socio-political context of
education and its current policy is essential in managing this effectively as a headteacher.
In the midst of what can seem like a ‘primeval soup’ of different policy ideas and a
constant stream of policy initiatives, headteachers have to distinguish priorities for their
schools and to select those which they will implement. Potentially this gives headteachers
significant power over the success of education policies like the London Challenge.
What do policy-makers need to consider when creating a policy in such a way as to
ensure that it is implemented faithfully by practitioners? This thesis provides a case study
of the London Challenge seeking to explain why it was successful. The findings are
revealing about policy-making in education. They show that if policy-makers create the
right conditions then practitioners can lead system-wide transformation in schools for the
benefit of all a region’s children.
London’s Challenge in 2002
This thesis examines the London Challenge, a policy introduced in 2002 to address the
under-performance of London’s secondary schools compared to every other region in
England. It was designed to raise standards and effect system-wide school improvement.
During the policy’s eight year duration, London moved from being the worst performing
to the highest performing region in England at KS4 and the between-school variation
which had dominated London’s secondary schools was significantly improved.
The challenge for secondary education in London in 2002 was that this poorer
performance of schools and its considerable local variation was exacerbated by
contextual factors and a growth in social polarisation. At the turn of the twentieth
century, London was more populous, diverse and wealthy than it had been but divisions
between rich and poor were wider than ever as affluence in housing as well as salaries
was distributed unevenly. Competition to gain entry to certain schools affected property
prices since those that could afford to could move house to do so. Changes in wealth and
class in an area became associated social dynamics of schools in such a context, creating
a cycle which deepened the problems for schools that performed poorly.
A social policy structure for public service which used competition as a means of raising
standards had been a key force in education since the 1980’s. Whilst there are strong
arguments about the success of market competition in improving public services, in the
ecology of London however, with the added ingredient of a comprehensive public
transport system and the moral hazard of ‘cream-skimming’ amongst popular schools, it
created a tale of ‘survival of the fittest’. Secondary schools in areas of social and
economic disadvantage suffered deepening social exclusion in such a situation, as did
There was a range of very practical difficulties for London’s secondary schools too,
despite considerable investment in education between 1997 and 2002. They were:
• Significant under-performance and between-school variation in five inner London
boroughs that persisted – Haringey, Hackney, Islington, Lambeth and Southwark
• Variable quality of teaching in schools and a growing shortage of teachers,
especially in science, maths, English and MFL
• The need for improvement in leadership – it was recognised that London
headteachers were as effective as those elsewhere but that the challenges of
running a London secondary school could be far greater. Retention problems had
weakened the pool of effective middle leaders
• Many schools in difficulty were situated in areas considerable regeneration and
additional support was needed for communities and young people
With such fundamental educational issues to deal with in such a complex urban setting,
any policy intervention for London had to be both uncompromising and comprehensive.
Yet, although it was both these things, the London Challenge when it was launched in
2003 seemed to be a sort of ‘bricolage’ of existing policy initiatives rather than a radical,
innovative approach. What actually happened in practice, however, as the policy was
implemented meant that the London Challenge evolved taking on a different character. It
was a significant factor in the policy’s success. The London Challenge is regarded by
many to have been one of the most successful education policies for school improvement.
It transformed London’s secondary schools which for years had been affected by a long
tail of under-achievement by pupils in urban schools which was directly related to social
disadvantage. This thesis seeks to explain why.
The London Challenge: a Policy Response to the Problem
of Under-Attainment in London Secondary Schools
Significant challenges were to be found socially, economically and demographically
which made London both a city of great advantage and of great inequity. This social
polarisation had a deep effect on London secondary schools and it was described in the
first policy text of the London Challenge, launched in 2003. Teachers did not want to
teach in London and the challenge of headship in many of the city’s secondary schools
was not attractive.
Following election to a second term in office, the Prime Minister Tony Blair turned his
attention to London. For the nation’s capital city to have the worst performance in
schools was unacceptable and it was being forced home to MPs who were trying to
choose a secondary school for their children – Harman, Abbott and Blair himself. In early
2002, a civil service team led by Jon Coles was appointed to explore the problem.
Extensive research was carried out and the data clearly demonstrated patterns of under-
attainment including a long corridor of challenge that ran along the Thames from central
to East London that corresponded with areas that had previously thrived on industries
connected to the docks – industries that has disappeared in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
In this ‘murky’ period of ‘pre-decision’, Estelle Morris who was Secretary of State for
Education was of the view that a special approach for London was needed with strong
leadership by someone who understood the challenge. This led to the appointment of Tim
Brighouse as leader of the London Challenge in late 2002. During this time, a group of
key London secondary headteachers became involved behind the scenes such as George
Berwick, Alan Davidson and Vanessa Wiseman. Coles and Brighouse worked together
on the policy text of the London Challenge and in spring 2003, the policy was formally
The policy’s proposals presented a series of differentiated approaches towards London
secondary schools. There were three key groups, referred to as priority areas:
• Priority One were the five inner London boroughs which required the most
• Priority Two was a group of seriously under-performing schools scattered across
all London boroughs, known as the ‘Keys to Success’ schools; and
• Priority Three which constituted all remaining London secondary schools.
In the policy, there were a range of different options for action that could be put together
in a tailored programme relevant to schools in each group. These options were
categorised under four themes:
• The London teacher, which included financial incentives to stay in London and
• The London leader, which included professional development for teachers, the
Leadership Incentive Grant and the appointment of a London Schools
Commissioner (later known as the Chief Advisor for London Schools)
• The London school, which included structural change through academy status,
specialisation or the involvement of business and industry. It also included the
expansion of the Extended School programme which was aimed at disadvantaged
communities and provided ‘joined-up’ public service provision
• The London student, which included a London-wide transfer system from primary
to secondary, free travel on London’s public transport system and initiatives such
as the London Gifted and Talented Centre and the Behaviour Improvement
Which school merited which approach was s decision made by the London Challenge
team – a team of civil servants, eight London Challenge Advisers and Brighouse who all
reported directly to Stephen Twigg, Minister for London Schools. All decisions were
based on performance data, Ofsted reports and local intelligence. The policy cut through
the Local Authorities’ responsibilities for schools’ performance, creating a bespoke
programme for each targeted school in accordance with need using every available
resource. According to Ofsted, the successes showed early on.
A number of evaluations of the London Challenge took place which demonstrated its
growing impact. Two studies of the leadership strategy of the London Challenge, one in
2005 by Peter Earley et al. and another by Peter Matthews et al. in 2006 made clear the
positive impact of the London Challenge on school improvement. Ofsted in 2006
reported that standards in London were rising faster than anywhere else in England and
that Ofsted judgements graded a significantly higher proportion of London secondary
schools as good or better for overall effectiveness.
In 2005, London began to surpass the national average at GCSE and by 2007, London
was out-performing every region. In addition, pupils in London on FSM and living in the
most socio-economically disadvantaged circumstances out-performed their peer counter-
parts everywhere else. In 2009, which saw the last set of summer GCSE results published
while the London Challenge was still ‘live’, using the IDACI measure, 43.9% of pupils in
the highest decile of income deprivation attained 5+ A* - C with English and maths
whereas in every other region except the East Midlands, performance for this group was
well below 30%. In the South East, London’s nearest region, the figure was 25.5%.
In 2009, the annual improvement rate for London secondary schools between 2003 and
2009 was 5% compared to a national annual improvement rate of 2.6% and no schools
were below the original floor target of 25% compared to 70 in 2003. At the end of the
policy’s life in 2010 after nearly eight years’ duration, Ofsted found that 30% of London
LA secondary schools had been judged to be ‘Outstanding’ compared to 17.5% in the rest
of England and only 2.4% of LA secondary schools in London had been judged
inadequate compared to 4.1% in the rest of England.
During 2011, the effects of the policy still continued to show with London’s secondary
schools gaining 61% 5+ A* - C with English and maths compared to the national average
of 58%. A 2011 report by Wyness made the direct link between the quality of London’s
schools and their significantly higher performance taking into account all contextual
Although the statistical evidence presents a strong case for the success of the London
Challenge, this needs interrogation. Educational change in schools is complex and tracing
the cause to the effect is not easy. There were many pre-existing policy initiatives from
which the 2003 London Challenge was constructed. Usually there is a time lag between
introducing structures for change and achieving the changes that are desired. Yet, the
policy’s impact was claimed to be evident early on.
There is no doubt that some pre-existing policy initiatives had an influence on the
London Challenge’s early successes, such as Teach First which helped to address
problems with recruitment in London secondary schools. However, in 2010 Ofsted’s
report attributed London’s successes directly to the London Challenge. One of the most
successful initiatives was the Keys to Success programme, designed to tackle between-
school variation in London targeting schools which initially in 2003 were below the floor
target of 25% A* - C or which were in a category. Fundamentally the approach was new.
It was a bespoke programme with a tailored approach for each school and the central
involvement of practising London leaders, so whilst the 2003 text hailed the policies of
the day the policy’s approach evolved and became centred on this model of ‘school to
The London Challenge evolved considerably between 2003 and 2010. Although it was
presented in the 2003 policy text as a top-down, centrally driven strategy for
improvement by contrast in 2010, it had become a practitioner-led model based on high
accountability paired with professional autonomy. All twelve programmes set out in the
2010 policy text were practitioner-led. There were several important features in this
practitioner-led model of system-wide school improvement. They were:
• The quality of the London Challenge advisers and consultant headteachers leading
the London Leadership Strategy – their competence, credibility and high level of
professional knowledge and skills was fundamental
• The importance of accountability for results by supporting schools, of the bespoke
nature of the support and of the matching process. This involved data scrutiny,
contractual arrangements between headteachers and good matching using good
local intelligence and EQ
• A shared language which described a strong sense of corporate responsibility for
London’s children and which focused on the collegiate nature of the task rather
than blame. The language that was used and the culture of the approach were
significant factors in the success of the London Challenge.
The importance of practitioner leadership in this way in the successes of the London
Challenge was highlighted in the 2010 Ofsted report. Whilst there still existed a forceful
remedial approach where necessary, headteachers together with the London Challenge
advisers developed an approach to their work which expressed values and beliefs about
mutuality and professional reciprocity. There are two comments to make as the
discussion moves forward to the next chapter. The first is that the London Challenge did
not evolve in a coherent and linear fashion; it was dialectical and its evolution was
influenced by many socio-political factors. The second is that the role of practitioners –
particularly the headteachrs and London Challenge advisers – was central to the evolution
and success of the policy.
The next chapter explores the policy process of the London Challenge. It provides a
theoretical examination of the London Challenge, explaining the dialectical nature of the
policy, suggesting how these dynamics related to the evolution of the policy and why the
role of the practitioner emerged with such significance.