Implementing the London Challenge: beyond top-down and bottom-up

18 February 2014

Governments pursuing a policy agenda will always need plans, rules and means of control, but that top-down approach to policy implementation must grapple with the capacity of other actors in the system to reinterpret, improve, co-opt or subvert the policy as it is implemented in a complex system.

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?

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Comments (2)

  1. Prateek Buch on 20 February 2014 at 10:59 am

    Interesting thoughts on an important area of policy. I have a question about how confident we can be that the networks, relationships and exchanges of ideas that arose from the London Challenge were directly responsible for improvements in outcomes in London schools. In other words, what other factors could explain the improvement, and was the Challenge ever formally evaluated to assess which elements were the most effective and how?

    I ask because there’s interest in learning the lessons from the London Challenge and spreading practice elsewhere – while I can see that a number of the effects of the Challenge may be of value, I think it’s important to know how much they contributed to school improvement.

    As an aisde, I think asking the sorts of questions you have here of such programmes is a really important way of understanding *how* and *why* something works (if indeed it does!), such situational/qualitative etc work is crucial if programmes are to be scaled-up or applied in new settings.

    Thanks!

    P

  2. Marc Kidson on 20 February 2014 at 5:10 pm

    Prateek – thanks for your comment. I’m glad you feel we have usefully unpacked the ‘how’ of the London Challenge.

    In a complex area like education, being confident that any set of interventions were the ones ‘directly responsible’ would be difficult, even with a clear framework for evaluation. A number of people we’ve spoken to lamented the fact that no-one was formally evaluating the relative merits of different interventions under the London Challenge, though the short feedback loops between support for schools and data on performance meant that the team were constantly testing the merits in less formal ways.

    The Centre for London are currently working on some research that seeks to better disentangle the various drivers of school improvement in London during the period, which may shed further light on it. But there is wide agreement that London Challenge was a ‘programmatic success’ (i.e. successfully implemented on its own terms) so the further issue of ‘policy success’ is important but not the main focus of our research project.

    Marc

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