London: leading the way

Written by: HTU | Published:

The London Leadership Strategy – born out of the London Challenge – is working to spread best practice across the capital and beyond. Dorothy Lepkowska explains

It comes as no great surprise when a government initiative is quietly closed down and forgotten. Usually this is because it has failed.

But the London Challenge was an exception. Far from failing, the Labour-led scheme had resulted in spectacular results across the capital. So it was probably for reasons of ideology and the climate of austerity, rather than any other, that funding to the project was withdrawn by the coalition government last March.

However, now reformed as the London Leadership Strategy (LLS), the organisation is looking not only to continue its work, but to move beyond the capital.

As Dame Sue John, a director of the LLS, explained: “The London Challenge started out as a relatively small group of secondary heads who were outstanding practitioners and leaders with a commitment to raising standards for all children.

“It grew over the years and now more than 1,000 primary, secondary and special schools are involved, which is a quarter of all schools in the capital. The challenge, in the real sense, for us now is to maintain and expand on that work, and to continue to harness that expertise so that it and the relationships that have been forged are not lost.”

It is easy to see why there is a moral will to keep this initiative alive. When it began in 2003, London had the lowest proportion of pupils achieving five A* to C grades at GCSEs out of England’s nine regions. But by 2010 it was at the top of the table – the only capital city in the developed world where academic performance outstripped that of the rest of the country.

While the LLS does not claim to have all the answers, or even to be the main contributor to London’s surge in performance, there is sufficient evidence – verified by Ofsted – to show it has played a major role.

Dame Sue continued: “In the past the approach may have come from the local authority of the school requesting support and we would broker that support, and be engaged with matching up National Leaders of Education (NLE) or Local Leaders of Education (LLE) with the school concerned.

“This was crucial to the success of the scheme. Between us, over the years, we have learned all about the heads and know their strengths, the type of school they lead and even their personalities.

“We do not use a one-size-fits-all approach. What we are offering is a bespoke service with the right match for the right context. You have to have a global intelligence to do this effectively and our concern was that, if (the London Challenge) broke up because the funding had ended, then we would lose all that knowledge and expertise.”

These levels of support do not begin and end with school leaders, however. The LLS has developed a wide range of programmes which are offered at whole-school level or can be aimed at individual teachers or departments needing some additional input.

David Bartram, director of the LLS’s Inclusion Support Programme, said there were six primary, eight secondary as well as a number of programmes aimed at supporting schools with challenges around special needs and behaviour.

He explained: “Aspirational schools will examine the work of every department and the service we offer may include heads of departments working directly with their counterparts in other schools, or leading practitioners from pupil referral units passing on their expertise to mainstream schools. Heads of department are often plunged into a position of responsibility they may not be prepared for so they need to get the context right.

“In some cases they are working with SENCOs or teaching assistants on an alternative curriculum. What we aim to do is to move that knowledge and expertise about. And it is not the case that schools are matched with neighbouring schools. Sometimes they will be linked with those from the other side of the capital if that is the most appropriate partner.”Previously funded by the government, via the National College for School Leadership, the LLS now aims to become a self-funding, not-for-profit organisation. In the past few months it has managed to keep going through some transitional funding but it will soon have to strike out alone.

While the early recipients of support were often referred by the local authority, intervention now often comes in the form of word of mouth recommendation with schools coming forward themselves – indicating its work is far from done.

Dame Sue said: “Some schools get private consultants in but the issues often remain when they leave. We are outcomes-focused. We want to keep this level of progress for young people in the capital and we don’t want to lose the fact that there has been a cultural shift to school improvement.

“Our model is not a quick fix sticking plaster but a means of working with colleagues to create sustainable improvement. They need to know they can complete the journey by themselves rather than becoming dependent on someone else. We want our partners to care for the success of every single child in London and not just those in their own school.”

The LLS can rightly claim to have played its part in the rise in pupil achievement and attainment in the capital. It has survived while other higher profile initiatives, such as Fresh Start, Education Action Zones and Excellence in Cities, are long forgotten. The fact there is a will to continue the work it has started is testament to its success.The next step will be casting its net further afield. Already there have been approaches from schools and local authorities in the south-east and other parts of England, wanting to know if the LLS will work with them to set up a similar network of support.

Dame Sue added: “One way we may be able to help them is to support the development of some sort of infrastructure in those regions and then pull out when these are comfortably in place.

“There is still a lot of work to be done. Good teachers can be great teachers. Great teachers can be outstanding. And the work of headteachers is never done. They need always to be one step ahead.”

• Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.

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