Case study 5: The London Challenge

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Part of A Transformation Fund to sustain the future of the NHS

The London Challenge was a secondary school improvement programme that was implemented in the capital between 2003 and 2011. It was subsequently extended to other cities around the UK in 2008, having already been deemed to have made a positive impact on London’s schools. It was jointly run by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) (although this department ceased to operate in 2007).


The Labour Party came into government in 1997, bolstered by the slogan ‘education, education, education’. Over the first few years, it implemented a number of new initiatives and policies to improve failing schools. But by 2001 the reforms had not gone as far as had been hoped and some areas, particularly London, were being left behind. The number of underperforming schools in London was not decreasing in line with the rest of the country, leading to discontent among parents, teachers and politicians, and criticism in the local media.

Intended benefits

The challenge focused on three clear and measurable objectives:

  1. to reduce the number of underperforming schools, especially in relation to English and maths
  2. to increase the number of schools rated as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted
  3. to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged children.

Process and management

The London Challenge was developed and implemented at a policy level, with responsibility allocated to the Minister for London Schools, a new post created within DfES. A team of civil servants subsequently led on different strands of the policy. In addition to this team, a London Schools Commissioner was appointed, supported by a team of London Challenge advisers, who were all senior practitioners with considerable expertise in education and a successful track record in improvement. This team was further supported by a private firm that provided project management expertise.

The London Challenge represented a combination of approaches:

  • the provision of pan-London leadership development resources and programmes available to all schools
  • individualised support for 70 of the most disadvantaged schools
  • intensive work with schools in five London boroughs to help them reform their secondary school provision.

The policy team identified the priority group of schools with the worst performance and assigned each a London Challenge adviser, who worked with the school (in close liaison with the policy team) to develop an action plan and broker a package of support from DfES. The policy team worked with key boroughs to develop a vision for improvement that was aligned with local plans, and outlined the resources required from DfES to deliver that vision.

Key elements to facilitate improvement included: support with effective use of data; support for leadership; and support for teaching and learning. Teaching and learning support included the Outstanding Teacher Programme and Improving Teacher Programme, which took place in teaching schools, and coaching which took place in the supported schools.  The sums of money involved in most projects were quite small, particularly at first, meaning that a collaborative approach was easier and there was less pressure for immediate success, allowing flexibility and informal approaches at times.

In supporting leadership development, the policy team sought to establish clusters of schools to encourage them to work together. Headteachers from good and outstanding schools were chosen as ‘consultant heads’ who could share experience and expertise with other headteachers in the area. This evolved into the London Leadership strategy, which was overseen by a nondepartmental government body and run by headteachers.

A key feature of the London Challenge was its support for innovation and learning. Data formed a core part of this, and schools were supported to both collect and use data in order to determine where support was required and whether interventions were successful. Schools also received additional support in project management. This was integral to creating an environment in which professionals took the lead in making decisions, but where there was a clear mechanism to hold them to account. Accountability was seen as an important part of the process, particularly for larger sums of money; routine meetings between schools, local authorities, project managers and members of the policy team were vital mechanisms for supporting implementation, identifying drivers of change, and addressing problems quickly.

Funding arrangements

The overall funding for the scheme was £15 million for the first three years and £80 million in total over the full eight years. The initial £15 million was drawn from underspends within the education department. In subsequent years, specific money was put aside for the scheme. This was focused almost exclusively on secondary schools (similar schemes in Birmingham and Manchester included primary schools).

The sums given to each school varied greatly, from £1,000 for staff to attend a conference (for example) to £60,000 for classroom refurbishment. Funding was brokered by expert advisers and officials at DfES. Smaller sums of money could be agreed and signed off by more junior officials, up to approximately £25,000, where they were passed to senior officials; sums of £50,000 and above were approved by the Minister for London Schools.

Matched funding was used in some areas to encourage buy-in and accountability. Funding also came in return for evidence of improvement and sustainability.

Schools used the money in different ways. Many used the funding to backfill staff absences, allowing their own staff to visit other schools and attend courses. Some appointed new staff to work on improvement schemes directly, while others used the fund for building work. The use of data was deemed really important in some places, and so money was used to employ a data manager. Resources were also an important expenditure for some schools, such as IT equipment or classroom refurbishment. Funding was particularly welcomed by schools that were running a financial deficit. Although the money had to be used for improvement rather than plugging gaps, it meant a school could undertake improvement initiatives while still running in deficit.


The London Challenge received strong support from the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and ongoing political support throughout its duration from the Education department. Despite changes in key posts, strong programme leadership was maintained. At a practical level, both the London Schools Commissioner and the policy lead were former teachers, with substantial experience and strong credibility in their fields. The leadership was integral to sustaining the political will for, and developing and maintaining the approach of, the London Challenge.

A review of London schools undertaken by CfBT Education Trust and the Centre for London found dramatic improvement in London’s schools between 2000 and 2014.26 They identified four main contributing factors, one of which was the London Challenge: ‘The superior performance of London schools is apparent using both government-imposed key indicators and other metrics that are less susceptible to “gaming” by schools.’

Another analysis of the London Challenge highlights a number of factors that contributed to its success. These included:

  • bringing in the right people to lead and manage the Challenge
  • understanding the nature of the problem and context for improvement
  • linking the aims to other government policy priorities
  • framing and communicating the purpose
  • having a wider team that reflected the ways of working required and a second group of people with relevant expertise
  • implementing change and developing policy through practice
  • ensuring buy-in from local stakeholders
  • drawing on assets in the system, building on existing good practice
  • managing expectations and creating space for ongoing learning
  • learning from experimentation
  • developing and sustaining a culture and ways of working coherent with the role of the Challenge
  • mobilising and empowering practitioners to develop professional ownership and accountability
  • establishing project management disciplines
  • using data to monitor progress
  • adapting to and celebrating success.

Although individual interventions had the greatest effect in each objective area overall, the most effective aspect seemed to be that it was a ‘highly supportive and encouraging intervention in which head teachers and teachers came to feel more valued, more confident and more effective’.

The new funding stream enabled schools to enact new and sometimes long-held improvement ambitions, regardless of the state of their overall finances.


Stakeholder engagement

The Challenge experienced difficulties in managing external stakeholders, including local authorities, parents and the local media. Different approaches and strategies were used to engage and manage stakeholders. These included making sure that, where required, organisations and individuals were kept informed, and aligning work streams and goals with those of the local education authority. The London Challenge took a stance of aiming to avoid the media spotlight in order to manage adverse criticism and enable change.

Administering the fund and resources

Ensuring that resources were used to greatest effect was not always straightforward. During the process, it was found that schools receiving smaller amounts felt less enthusiastic about the programme.

Access to expertise

The London Challenge experienced difficulties in ensuring access to credible professionals who could provide the appropriate support for underperforming schools but also remain accountable to the Department. There were also challenges in ensuring that those involved had access to quality resources and models of improvement.

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