Reflections on reform: “Moral purpose counts for everything. You have to believe”.

Last week, I attended ‘The London Turnaround’ Challenges in Leadership event hosted by Teach First. A panel of school leaders and researchers came together with teachers and community members to discuss whether narrowing the attainment gap for pupils from low income backgrounds in London over the past decade was happy coincidence or a planned success. In this blog, I reflect on some of the issues raised and how these relate to some of my reflections on my experiences in New Orleans, where I and a group of Teach First staff and ambassadors from South London visited to find out more about educational reform post hurricane Katrina.


‘The London Effect’

The rapid transformation of educational outcomes for pupils from low income backgrounds in London over the past decade – coined by some as ‘the London effect’ – has been a topic of much debate recently. Whilst there is comprehensive research and theory accounting for the ‘turnaround’ of achievement in London schools, there is little conclusive evidence of the root cause of London’s success in narrowing the attainment gap. Opportunities and access to increased resources, collaboration between schools, improved attainment at KS2, and high levels of ethnic integration are just a few of the suggested contributing factors. You can read the full report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) which outlines the findings of research in this area here.

With a panel of experts in educational leadership, policy, and research coming together to debate the topic yesterday evening, a similar air of inconclusiveness lingered throughout the conversation. Senior Research Economist at IFS, Ellen Greaves, summed this up by saying that “there is much that remains unanswered when it comes to deciding factors. What we do know from the research conducted is that there are many influencers and significant contributors to the change that London has seen in the last ten years.”

Loic Menzies, Director of LKMco, suggested that proximity of schools in London was a key factor in bringing about transformational change, with more opportunities to collaborate or for teachers to simply “pop down the road to observe an outstanding practitioner, which isn’t necessarily possible in more remote areas of the UK”.  Whilst school leaders Paul Bhatia (Associate Head teacher at Wembley High Technology College) and Nicola Graham (Principal at Harris Academy Chafford Hundred) agreed that there was ample opportunity for collaboration between schools in London which invited improvement at whole system level, they noted that there is an “air of healthy competition” between London schools which has continued to drive up standards over recent years.

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‘The London Turnaround’ panel members (left-right) and host, Natasha Porter (centre): Paul Bhatia, Nicola Graham, Loic Menzies, and Ellen Greaves.

Whilst it is difficult and perhaps unhelpful to draw direct comparisons between New Orleans and London in terms of their successes in narrowing the educational gap for pupils from low income backgrounds (educational reform in New Orleans, we were told by one educator, is “a civil rights movement”); there are some obvious links despite contextual differences. You can read more about this in my previous blogs.

During our visit to New Orleans in October half term, we heard the voices of many members of the community both supporting and challenging the power of the Charter movement vs. the ’traditional’ school model in turning around educational outcomes for some of the city’s most deprived children. Opinions ranged from viewing the ‘Charterisation’ of schools in New Orleans as a positive move towards social inclusion to those who saw this as the “the biggest social experiment in educational history on African-American children”.  Whilst discussions in London were absent of the same level of political and racial charge yesterday evening, there were certainly tentative questions from the audience regarding the “intentions” and “methods” of academy chains in London and their role in educational reform.

Given the raw and often divided opinions on what’s led to improvement in New Orleans, it has been similarly difficult for our group of ambassadors to draw a consensus on what’s lead to the changes in pupil outcomes there. There was frequent reference in New Orleans to community buy-in and collaboration with families. In some cases, schools in New Orleans viewed working with the community as an opportunity to understand pupils’ cultural influences and to embrace these in the values and practices of the schools by building a ‘school family’, whilst some viewed culture as something to “build from the school outwards”, even if this meant silencing or “reducing the effect” of pupils’ home cultures.

Interestingly, when an audience member yesterday raised a question about how teachers in London can overcome the many barriers to education that their pupils face, in particular, the characteristic low parental engagement faced by many schools, the message from one panel member, Paul Bhatia (Associate Headteacher at Wembley High Technology College) was that “it’s hard, that much is true”.  He continued: “I hate to use the word excuses but we can’t allow family background to become an excuse for the kids that we work with not to do well. We need to take the focus of pastoral work away from teachers in order to allow them to focus on teaching, although in being a teacher, that pastoral side of things is always going to be part and parcel of the job.” Edna Karr High School in New Orleans embodied this very principal in action: providing a ‘wrap-around’ care service for the most vulnerable pupils. School Principal Harold Clay told us that: “we need to be all things to everyone” and that doing so requires a shift from “part-time solutions for full-time problems” to working with “every agent possible” to provide a full range of services (including dental treatment and cancer screening) to pupils and their families within the school hub.

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Principal Harold Clay at Edna Karr High School in New Orleans talks to South London ambassadors about the services the school provides to narrow the achievement gap for pupils in challenging circumstances

Nicola Graham, Principal at Harris Academy Chafford Hundred said that schools need to do more to “take away the periphery pastoral tasks” from teachers to free up time for lesson planning and assessment whereas Paul Bhatia settled on the key to success as having “unrealistic expectations  of our pupils and then surprise ourselves” (when they achieve them).

What next?

Once the panel transitioned to talking about the future of the London educational landscape, there was resounding unity in their responses: teachers must believe that change is possible to achieve the same level of success in the state sector as in private education. “We are offering compensatory education” said Paul Bhatia, and “it is possible to get to the same place as the private schools with our kids but it’s not going to be easy: disadvantage is very real and it will continue to exist. We must recruit fully committed teachers who come into this at a personal cost: those that believe this is possible and are prepared to work relentlessly”. Reynard Casimier, Pastor at Love Outreach Christian Church in New Orleans told us at a similar panel discussion at Landry-Walker High School in New Orleans that teachers must “Go forth with purpose and passion. Empty yourself, like a little teacup, into those children. You are the now generation, they are upcoming. I want to go to my grave empty.”

Coaching teachers on the Leadership Development Programme to develop a vision for their pupils, I encounter this relentless belief and at times self-sacrificial dedication to making a difference on a daily basis. Whilst this is having phenomenal short-term impact in many cases, I’m acutely aware that this way of working is no sustainable model for lasting change: teachers alone cannot achieve our charity’s vision that no child is left behind. As one second year teacher told me earlier this week: “sometimes I feel like I’m giving everything, and it’s still not enough.” Whilst New Orleans and London both have a long way to go in affecting systemic change within the educational system, it certainly seems that working more meaningfully with communities is having a positive effect on narrowing the divide between pupils from low-income backgrounds compared to their peers and in doing so, sharing the responsibility of this movement with others beyond the school gates which ultimately creates longer term gains.

What’s my biggest takeaway from the event?

Whatever our role in making education fairer we must continue to believe that it is possible, and we have to believe in the value of bringing others with us on this journey. Loic Menzies reminded us that behind the power of educator belief sits another layer of important work:

“Are we doing enough? Who do we mean by ‘we’? Are teachers doing enough? Yes. But we need to get everyone on board with tackling this now, and by everyone, I mean members of our communities – whether that’s parents, policy makers or other stakeholders – they all need to buy into this in the same way that we do.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge that now faces those invested in levelling the playing field for kids is not just in tackling social inequity itself through direct action, but rather in changing the mindsets of others who continue to see social inequity as a barrier to educational equality and helping them to see the part they could play in changing that.  In the words of one teacher we met in New Orleans, Arlene Casimir-Siar at KIPP Believe Primary: “this work is too difficult to do alone, and you reach so few that way.” Arlene is working with her army of parents, community members, and in fact “anyone who has a place in my vision”- her advocates – on creating a better future for her pupils.

Rather than paying lip service to community engagement, schools must become the heart of our communities, and communities the heart of our schools.

If you have a few minutes to spare, here’s a great video that one of my colleagues shared earlier this week about community members working together to create opportunities for children to play safely in their local streets.

Please leave your comments below, and I’d love to hear from you if you have any questions about our experience in New Orleans or ideas on how we can better share our learning with you.