Implementing the London Challenge: beyond top-down and bottom-up
Managing this creative tension has emerged as a central theme in our research for our project on policy implementation. In this blog we offer some early thoughts about the lessons for policy implementation that can be found in the case of London Challenge.
When it was first mooted in 2002, the London Challenge was little more than an aspiration to address the problem of London’s long tail of underperforming schools. There were several directions central government could have taken to make that aspiration a reality.
The ‘Challenge’ could have been issued as a directive from central government to local authorities, or directly to schools themselves: “improve or else.” Variations on this approach were common under the New Labour government, naming ‘failing’ schools and putting them in special measures with direct intervention from the Department for Education and the threat of closure.
Alternatively, with the broad ambition set out by the secretary of state, the ‘Challenge’ could have been taken up by those closest to the problem – parents, teachers, headteachers, education officers. Indeed, this kind of collective action is at the heart of the Coalition’s free schools policy and underpins some of the thinking behind the expansion of academies.
Lurking behind the different possible roles central government might have played in the implementation of the Challenge are two familiar ways of thinking about policy implementation.
First, the ‘top-down’ route which encourages governments to define, minimise and control the variables that have a bearing on a policy; this approach is about central prescription and tight scope. By contrast, the ‘bottom-up’ route treats that approach with scepticism, pointing out the variety of factors that frustrate or render ineffective such well-laid plans: the incentives or beliefs of implementers and citizens, local context, differentials of power and resource. The bottom-up view urges caution on those who would seek to prescribe, but with little in the way of advice to those engaged in the day-to-day business of implementing central government policies.
The London Challenge found effective ways to reconcile both top-down and bottom-up approaches, creating a delivery system that could balance the desire of ministers to maintain overall grip and the need for sufficient policy flexibility to adapt to local need, capability and resource. Our research suggests that this was achieved in three principal ways:
1. The London Challenge team recognised that there was much expertise and knowledge about how to turn around an underperforming school already ‘out there’ in the education system but that this knowledge tended to be static and siloed, reinforcing the divide between good schools and those that struggle. Central government needed to create the conditions for assets to flow from good schools to underperforming schools across London. Department for Education officials recognised that they were not best placed to broker this exchange directly, and instead employed a small cadre of senior practitioners, including former headteachers, to work with the underperforming schools tailoring packages of support. Over time, this approach created networks which remain even though the Challenge has now ended, through programmes such as the National College’s Local and National Leaders of Education and the now-independent London Leadership Strategy.
2. The London Challenge balanced trust and discretion for these practitioners with high levels of professional accountability. The feedback loops were kept short and relational: between advisers and department officials, between department officials and local authorities and within the DfE team itself. The underlying hierarchy wasn’t abandoned, but it was subordinate to the need for easy flows of information and rapid responses. The adviser group was convened regularly by the Chief Adviser, usually in private spaces where its members could account for and challenge each other about what they were doing, with a view to sharing what worked and avoiding what didn’t. These meetings were super-charged by the use of data – to assess the impact of their work and to identify which schools to target in the future.
3. There was alignment between key players in the system. During our research we heard a lot about a collective ‘moral purpose’ that got people working together from the minister through to the school leader. But the implementation lesson here is that this alignment is not something that you either have, or you don’t. Rather, alignment should be nurtured through discussion, starting from a motivating shared purpose (a good education for every child) but then having tough, respectful, ongoing conversations about how you’re going to reach the collective goal. Here, ministers must appreciate that they have a crucial ambassadorial to play behind the scenes and weigh this against the political incentives they have to be seen publicly ‘getting tough’ on underperformance.
These are just a few of the emerging lessons from our research. We will produce three other in-depth case studies about policy implementation in the future. But before we finalise what we have learnt about the London Challenge we want to know whether these lessons resonate with your own experience? What would you add? And how can you apply some of these insights to other areas of government policy?