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The Challenge of The London Challenge for Scotland

This week Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, announced that in the future all Scottish headteachers will be required to be qualified to Masters level before they take up post. She made this announcement not in Scotland, but down in England, and particularly London where she has been very impressed by the results of the London Challenge initiative introduced by Tony Blair's Government in 2003. There is no doubt that Nicola is committed to closing the attainment gap that exists, and which is growing, between learners affected by poverty and those more advantaged in Scotland. This has been described as a national disgrace, and needs addressing by all levels of society, but particularly by our education system which can have the most impact on closing this gap. I applaud our First Minister's determination to do something about this, but I do have some questions to ask about the particular path she has chosen to address the issue. Is the London Challenge a suitable model we should seek to implement and learn from? Does the impact of context mean that an attempt to transplant an initiative from London into Scotland is doomed to failure? What impact had leadership on the success of the London Challenge, but which caused it to be less successful when transported to other regions of England? Does making all headteachers have a Masters qualification ensure the quality of leadership in our schools?

There is no doubt the London Challenge is seen as a success story of the recent English educational story. Prior to its inception in 2003 London's schools had been underperforming compared to other schools and areas across the country, using the Government's and Ofsted's benchmarks relating to exam performance. Under the leadership of Tim Brighouse the London Challenge focused on raising the quality of leadership and learning and teaching across London schools and their local authorities. Leadership training programmes were put into place for leaders at all levels and further development programmes for teachers to improve teaching and learning practices and understandings. Key also was the use of data, and this was used to create families of schools which displayed common characteristics. Teams of experienced advisors were appointed to support schools and local authorities. The support to schools was tailored to meet each school's needs and this changed and modified as the needs changed over time. Language used was supposed to be overwhelmingly positive with schools requiring the most support and seen as in greatest need being called the 'keys to success', rather than 'failing schools'. By 2005 the performance of London schools had been turned around and they were now performing above the national average, and continued to be so. In 2010 Ofsted declared that London had a higher proportion of 'Good' and 'Outstanding' schools, as identified from their inspection processes, than any other area in the country. The programme was seen as such a success that it was then rolled out into other cities and areas like Manchester and the Black Country. However, the results from these roll outs were variable and did not achieve the heights of London.

This brings me to context. Is it possible to transplant a successful strategy or programme from one city or country, put it into another different one and get the same results and outcomes? I have my doubts, and so do many researchers who have looked at such actions at a macro and micro levels. For years, Finland has consistently topped, or been near the top, of the international PISA education system rankings produced by the OECD. This has resulted in a deluge of visitors from across the world looking  closely at what Finland have been doing to become so successful. They of course focused on schools, systems, structures, programmes and leadership as they searched for the secret of Finland's success. They spoke to Governments and leaders like Pasi Sahlberg and returned to their own countries armed with the features of the successful Finnish system. Many then ensured the same practices were put in place in their own systems and schools and then waited for the improved performance to kick in. Trouble was, they were unable to achieve the same results as Finland. Why? Because too many visitors ignored factors that PISA did not report on. So social structures, culture, history and even geography were not looked at, and it turns out these were massively important factors in shaping performance in Finland's schools and education system. I was in Cincinnati in January and there Dave Reynolds talked about how visitors had gone to Finland because they were doing so well in developing reading ability in their learners. They took the programmes they were using away to use in their own schools, but the impact was not the same. What they had ignored was that Finland has the cheapest newsprint in the world, think trees, and they have the cheapest newspapers, which leads to a culture where everyone, and every household, traditionally reads every day. This factor is crucial when considering the high reading performance of Finnish students. Culture, history and geography are all important. The other thing about visitors was that they tended to cherry-pick the characteristics that suited them when they looked at what was going on in Finland. Finland does not have an inspection system, teachers are qualified to Masters level and are held in high esteem. I don't see many countries going down the route of no inspections and holding teachers in high esteem, with high levels of trust. I also think getting to that point would be very difficult with different cultures and different histories. 

So we can see that system copying, at a macro level, is full of difficulties. So it is at the micro level, and that is why so many of us have difficulty with the concept of 'sharing good practice.' This is a dangerous term as it too assumes you can take what has been successful in one or more schools, or one or more classrooms, and drop this into other schools or classrooms and expect the same results. You can't. Context is crucial here too. What works for one teacher or one school  might not work for another teacher or school, with different learners, staff and points of development. I have always argued that what will transfer across contexts are the principles that sit beneath 'good practice'. So, what steps did you take to produce the practice? Why did you use these? How you knew where you were in terms of development? What was your focus? How did you use data to inform and support? What worked and what didn't? What were the timescales involved? How did you deepen understanding? These become key pieces of information to share, in order to help others on their own development journies,  rather than the wholesale lifting and copying what you did, or worse, just cherry picking the bits you like.

What of leadership in the London Challenge? I recently attended a discussion with Chris Chapman from  the Robert Owen Centre, which is part of Glasgow University's School of Education. Chris had worked on what became known as the Manchester Challenge. This had emerged out of the London Challenge and Chris had said whilst the results achieved in Manchester were good, those in the Black Country were variable at best. He feels the most crucial factor in the success of the London Challenge was the leadership of Tim Brighouse supported by a very able Civil Servant in Jon Coles from the Department of Education. The two worked well as a leadership team and Tim Brighouse made sure he spent time developing a culture that facilitated conversations amongst school leaders about how they could improve. Out of both London and Manchester the concept of the self-improving school system, that David Hargreaves and others had spoken of, began to emerge. In this headteachers recognised and accepted their responsibility for the learning of children outwith their own schools. Chris felt that for too long we have spent too much time trying to repair the system and not enough on improving it. The development of system leadership is a way of improving the system. Chris believes that the leadership of Sir Tim Brighouse, in London, and Mel Ainscow in Manchester was key in why these initiatives worked and perhaps why the same practice in the Black Country and elsewhere was less successful. In all cases, the context was different and their success perhaps also hinged on how approaches and principles were nuanced to reflect local contexts.

There is no doubt that leadership in schools, and local authorities, and how this could be improved, was a key focus of the London Challenge. Various leadership courses and training was put in place to develop and improve school leadership. There was no requirement to have school leaders with a Masters qualification, indeed the Teaching First initiative also emerged out of this. In this, well qualified graduates were placed in school, with no educational training, and were trained on the job over two years. This has further developed with the emergence of Teaching Schools in England. So there were lots of mixed messages coming out of and emerging from The London Challenge. We need highly committed and qualified leaders and teachers to improve the system, whilst at the same time they were reducing the need for teachers, and eventually leaders, to have completed a course of study in education at a University. It is interesting to note that Jon Coles left the Civil Service and is now leader of the largest chain of Academies in England, United Learning. He has committed to growing this chain even further and is currently advising Nicola Sturgeon, as she seeks to emulate the success of the London Challenge.

My big question would be, why? In Scotland we have been developing a completely different and innovative approach to our curriculum than most other countries in the world. Through Curriculum for Excellence we are leading the way for system development in many ways. More and more countries are taking an interest in our approach, and the ethos and principles that sit behind this. Indeed the new proposed curriculum for Wales is very similar to Scotland's.  Our performance in various international rankings is improving, though this was not a particular aim. Our curriculum has a focus on skills and knowledge. We are looking at the development of our learners individually and holistically, and we understand that such deep change takes time and is a continuous process. We are currently nearly eleven years into our 'new' curriculum and approach. I spoke with Alma Harris recently and she, and others, are impressed with our direction of travel and the approach we are taking. Her message to Scotland was to 'hold your nerve' with CfE because it will deliver what you are looking for, and is already. That is not to say it is all perfect. There are issues to be addressed and tensions created. But these are a consequence of any major shift or change and can be catalysts new thinking and practice to improve what we do. There is a wealth of expertise, national and international, that resides within Scotland and within the system and we need to recognise this and utilise it to keep moving forward. Of course we need to engage with, and look at, what is happening elsewhere and internationally, as Alma would advise 'think globally but act locally.' I would much prefer our First Minister to engage with leading educationalists and thinkers in our own country and elsewhere, rather than administrators, who are unlikely to understand learning and may have other priorities. Requiring headteachers to have a Masters qualification may ensure a certain intellectual level for school leaders, but does not ensure improved leadership performance, just as teachers with PHDs are not always the most effective deliverers of learning experiences. High performing school leaders need a whole range of attributes and qualities, including intellectual capacity. A focus on one particular aspect, might not mean we have the best leaders in place. Also, recruiting headteachers remains a huge challenge, and some might see the requirement to have, and fund, a Masters qualification as another obstacle to attracting the right people into the role. There is a danger the numbers applying for headteacher roles could fall even further with this approach. We want our best teacher and our best leaders in schools, and we need local and national strategies to allow this to happen.

So, good luck Nicola. Again, I applaud your aims, as would any thinking professional in the Scottish educationa system. There are no quick fixes but, I believe, we are already heading in the right direction. We have the right people in the system who can help us take the next steps. We just need the support of Government to help us get where we all want to be, with a leading, world class education system that allows all, whatever their backgrounds, to achieve their potential and be successful.


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