The Story of the London Challenge

Assuming you are not living in an education news blackout area (which, seeing as you are reading Schools Week, is unlikely) you will know London schools are great. Barely a week goes by without another statistic, report or piece of research reinforcing the supremacy of London’s educational outcomes. For those outside the capital it feels rather like having an overachieving older sibling to whom you are constantly compared (one that has been lavished with textbooks, tutors and extra-curricular activities denied to you).

Why London’s outcomes are so good and the level to which the capital’s success can be attributed to the London Challenge are still up for debate. Few would argue, however, that the challenge has not been a major force for good; its DNA can be found in many of the policies at the heart of the school-led system and efforts to emulate it have resulted in copycats across the country. Having spent seven years working with partners to try to kick-start a North East Challenge – with frustratingly little success – I hoped this book would provide inspiration, honesty and insights as to how London’s educational transformation felt for those on the ground.

The Story of the London Challenge aims to give the “immediate policy and practitioner voice” on this much-analysed of initiatives. No one could be better qualified to do this than Sir Tim Brighouse and David Woods. As chief adviser and lead adviser, they were in from the beginning and have an overview of all aspects of this complex and organic programme.

The first chapter is Sir Tim’s personal reflections on how the challenge came into being – useful, not least in clearing up any confusion on the roles of the number of individual ministers I have heard claim the challenge as “their baby”.

Sir Tim’s wisdom and passion shine off the page and he is open about the programme’s shortcomings and the political compromises that were made to get it up and running.

Unfortunately this warm and engaging first-person tone does not continue. Further chapters, written by other key players, are formal and removed so that the book becomes less “the story of the London challenge” and more a report of what was done as part of it. This leads to a lot of repetition as each author retells the context and principles and all too often leaves unanswered the question of “how” rather than “what” was achieved.

There are also glaring omissions. No one, for instance, talks about money. While investment may not have been the critical factor in the challenge’s impact, without the millions involved none of the work described would have happened. The luxury of being able to try new ideas, continually adapt approaches on the hoof and respond quickly to emerging issues, comes from the unprecedented levels of secure, stable funding targeted at one geographical area over seven years.

The politicians or local authority leaders involved are not given a chapter, despite the issue of mandate identified repeatedly as one of the key success criteria for major place-based improvement programmes (see CentreForum’s Regional Challenges research). Also the “story” told is that of those in the driving seat. I would have welcomed more voices from headteachers, teachers and students about how the challenge worked from their perspectives.

A warts and all narrative that got under the skin of the real stories of those touched by the challenge would have made a more compelling account and added new insight to the wealth of material already available.

However, the book does contains pertinent lessons for those involved in establishing area-based improvement programmes and school improvement initiatives.

The last two chapters turn to the legacy of the challenge with Chris Husbands providing a useful summary that should have resonance outside the capital and beyond the political landscape of the mid-2000s.

What I took from the book was the openness, effectiveness and trust within the partnership of the government and the challenge team, the length and stability of the commitment to the programme and the urgent need to clone Sir Tim!