In 1998, schools in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets were performing poorly. Despite spending more on education than any other local authority in England, results were well below the national average. OFSTED ranked Tower Hamlets as the worst performing of 149 boroughs nationwide.
By 2013 the position had been transformed: Tower Hamlets, still one of the poorest boroughs in England, returned GCSE results above the national average. Every maintained secondary school had been judged either ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, and the gap between the performance of children on free schools meals and their peers was only 7 percentage points compared to a national gap of 23 points.
This is an outstanding success story. In Transforming Education for All, Chris Brown, David Woods and I try to explain the Tower Hamlets turnaround. We drew on a range of data, including pupil attainment data, council minutes, OFSTED reports, questionnaires and interviews with key participants to trace the story. It is a fascinating tale: an initial turnaround under Christine Gilbert, appointed as Director of Education in 1998; a consolidation and extension of improvement from secondary to primary schools under her successor, Kevan Collins; and then acceleration and sustained success from 2008.
We identified seven key success factors which drove the borough wide transformation.
Ambitious leadership at all levels
In the 1990sTower Hamlets was an ineffective education authority. The appointment of Christine Gilbert (who later became Chief Inspector of Schools in England) was critical in the improvement journey. Her successor was clear that it is “impossible to overstate” her achievement. But this appointment catalysed other forces already ambitious for children’s achievement, the politicians in particular. One official comment that “Christine led from the front; there were no excuses, only challenges to be overcome.” The task was to mobilise ambition at all levels through stretching targets for schools and teachers. One head put it to us simply: “things have to be implemented in a consistent way, they cannot be demoted or watered down – consistency is part of the concerted effort and ensures things are done right and well”.
Very effective school improvement
Very quickly after 1998, the school improvement service was re-shaped. Schools causing concern were identified and targets set. Robust action was taken: financial delegation to some schools was withdrawn, and in 48 schools causing concern between 1998 and 2012, 42 head teachers were replaced. Tower Hamlets’ schools have also been well served by their Research and Statistics Department which has provided a sophisticated range of contextual and benchmarked data to complement DfE and Ofsted data.
High quality teaching and learning
Tower Hamlets faced a severe teacher shortage in the 1990s. The LA strategy to address this was multi-layered, including recruiting and retaining high quality staff; encouraging and supporting local people into education and maximising work based routes to qualified teacher status; improving the recruitment of newly qualified teachers; improving access to housing for teachers; and professional development. The Authority ran a Masters programme in close partnership with a university, and retained a Professional Development Centre while other councils were closing theirs. The impact was considerable: OFSTED reports in the past five years are clear that teaching quality in Tower Hamlets is very high. But it was not achieved through a single strategy – and it was strongly steered by the authority.
No account of the transformation in Tower Hamlets can overlook resource: its schools received almost 60% more resource per pupil than the national average and higher levels of resourcing than almost all other London boroughs. It is easy to attribute success to high funding levels but money needs to be spent wisely.
External, integrated services
Through much of the period of sustained improvement, national policy encouraged local authorities to integrate services around the needs of the child. Tower Hamlets did this in a particularly effective way. In a relatively small authority, it was somewhat easier than in larger authorities to bring key agencies together, but huge progress was made in its key priority areas: reducing truancy, reducing NEETs (young people not in education, employment or training) and in improving the performance of looked after children. All these were important in themselves, but they had knock-on impacts on wider attainment. In each case, the Authority led schools, and was able to bring them alongside, by virtue of the strength of its vision and the effectiveness of its delivery.
Community development and partnerships
Although Tower Hamlets has always had a strong community identity, in the years after 1998, community resources were mobilised effectively around education. Formal agreements were forged with the Imams from this largely Muslim community to counter the effects of children taking several days off for religious festivities or extended holidays in Bangladesh in term time.
Adults were welcomed into the school workforce: as many as half the adults in many schools in Tower Hamlets came from the community itself, developing strong relationships with teachers and school leaders. Some schools were developed into community centres, establishing extended service and providing resources and recreation for children and young people. The Education Business Partnership was particularly effective in building links with companies in the City of London.
A resilient approach to external government policies and pressure
Tower Hamlets’ leadership was consistently robust in its approach to government initiatives. In some cases – for example, early piloting of literacy and numeracy strategies – it was an enthusiastic cheerleader for government support; in others – for example in setting improvement targets – it wanted to be more ambitious than government advisers counselled, embracing London Challenge with enthusiasm. In yet others it rejected government pressure – for example, no Tower Hamlets school was converted to academy status between 2002 and 2010.
Our report has attracted wide attention – a double page spread in the Independent, and, strikingly, a feature article in Forbes magazine. That article bore the headline – not quite accurate like all headlines, but worth having anyway “How London’s failing schools became the best in the world”. Our conclusion was a little more measured, but we believe that Tower Hamlets has shown that it is possible to create superb urban schools in genuinely challenging circumstances.