Challenges for UK School Decision Makers

The social context of education is one that is, to some degree, dependent upon the cultural environment in which it exists. Thus, urban schooling is one cultural environment which provides a social context within which to analyze and understand the educational experience.

The United Kingdom is culturally diverse and this is an additional and salient factor within the larger issue of urban schooling. It has also been suggested that a school is, in itself also a cultural phenomenon. There are modes of behaviour, rules to follow, expectations, means of survival and success, a hierarchy and a value system. Another factor is the differing needs of the students themselves. Even without the presence of a learning disability or special need, students do assimilate and understand information differently. Teachers today, face the difficult task of taking these needs into account and adjusting lesson plans accordingly. Finally, there are always regional and national standards to be adhered to.  

      Urban schools are not only about the schools themselves, but also the communities in which they exist. To some degree, these communities maintain a symbiotic relationship with their schools. The schools rely on the communities to support them and take an interest in the education of Britain’s youth, while the communities look to the schools to create generations of educated youth prepared to take on leadership roles in the coming years. Schools are also responsible for identifying and dealing with barriers to children’s education in the urban environment.  

      For many schools, this is a distinct challenge as many of their students may come from impoverished homes, backgrounds of abuse and other personal difficulties. In addition, schools may lack the funding to create and initiate the programs they believe can empower their specific student population. According to a report by the National College for School Leadership states that school leadership in the UK must address six specific issues. These are adopting an optimistic attitude and refusing to give up on finding solutions to even the most difficult problems, build capacity within their school and rotate responsibilities, adopt and maintain a vision for the school, be a constant and active force of encouragement — seek higher benchmarks and goals whenever possible, ensure teachers have everything they need to do their job in the classroom and minimalize risk by taking the blame for school mistakes.

      To understand and analyze the challenges in the urban school is to first acknowledge the power of the school itself. It is an environment that provides young people with their primary force of socialization for twelve years of their lives. It is during these formative years that children learn how to socialize, understand and analyze information, identify and strive for constant and changing goals and arrive at an understanding of who they are in this world. One of the primary challenges to those schools that exist in communities designated as ‘neighbourhood renewal areas’ (NRA). The National College for School Leadership (NCSL) reports that “Schools in neighbourhood renewal areas (NRAs), for example, have three times as many children in poverty as the national average. On average their communities have 30 per cent higher mortality rates and three times as much burglary. Schools in NRAs often face very low attainment on entry and may have high numbers of pupils on the at-risk register”.  

      One of the key questions the NCSL reports asks is whether or not the same style of leadership would work in any school regardless of the distinct challenges they face. Or, do specific urban challenges and circumstances require different responses in leadership and policy? While certain communities and schools may experience similarities in certain aspects, schools tend to be unique and the social context in which they exist presents each school with its own specific challenges. The NCSL report suggests that one element in leadership is elementary no matter what the specific challenges are and no matter what social context the school exists in. This element is the ability of the school leadership to cope with their unique pressures with a certain ‘can do’ attitude and the specific ability to understand the community in which it exists and their unique needs. “Perhaps most important is an ability to read the community itself, adapting the style and content of provision to local needs and opening up appropriate channels of communication. The capacity to recognize and respond to differences is perhaps the common factor”.

      Research conducted by Grossman, Walker and Raley (date?) suggests that one of the ways in which school leadership and policymakers can positively affect students in urban schools is to ensure support for effective after-school programs. Many children are left on their own for long periods of time once school ends. This leaves them with a great deal of ‘disposable time’ which they can either use positively or not. After-school programs provide urban youth with opportunities to continue expanding themselves academically and socially. One of the main advantages to after-school programs is the fact that all students can access them. This is in contrast to other programs such as the Boys and Girls Club or Scouts which are not universally available and especially not in poor neighborhoods. “ […] school based, after-school programs are increasingly becoming the solution policymakers suggest for all sorts of youth problems–poor academic achievement, gang participation, violence and drug use” .   These authors temper their enthusiasm with one cautionary stipulation — policymakers and school administrators must identify the potential of these programs with the reality of what they can provide. Therefore, one of the important decisions to be made is not only what programs to put into place but to first identify programs which meet the specific needs of their students. As such, schools need to decide not only if they want to create after-school programs but if they have the funds, space, staff/expertise and resources in order to ensure their program(s) will be successful.  

      Policymakers and leaders must make decisions about how to use schools as positive environments for children in these areas. They must decide how to allocate the money and resources in order to create programs that will support and empower these children. In addition, school administrators must specifically know the community resources in order to help students in extreme distress. One of the roles that urban schools fulfill is that of an emotional support. Teachers, administrators often find themselves in the role of ‘counsellor’ in the absence of funds for a school psychologist. Students who live in distressed areas often need a shoulder to cry on, or simply someone to talk to. They face tremendous pressure at home and are often coping with situations that are far beyond their emotional capabilities.

      The practicality of living in difficult urban environments often generates a certain disenchantment with and disenfranchisement from education. Families coping with issues such as chronic unemployment, poverty, poor health and unstable living environments often view the importance of education with great skepticism. To families facing these problems, their children’s education can take a back seat to basic survival. Thus, the social context for these families is one in which education is less important than being able to provide the basic necessities of life — something which they can’t achieve. It is therefore understandable how children in these families also view educational success and academic achievement as a distant and oftentimes meaningless goal. Yet, as the NCSL points out, even schools in these seemingly impossible environments find the means to be successful. “There is a strong body of evidence that schools in challenging circumstances can raise standards, and that this occurs when initiatives take account of their unique circumstances and take a people-centred approach to change — distributing leadership across the school community”.

      Grossman, Walker and Raley (2006) report that after-school programs have been identified as the Extended-Service Schools (ESS) Adaptation Initiative.   In the UK there are approximately sixty ESS programs in over seventeen cities. One of the key parameters of this initiative is that it not only acknowledges the challenge of urban schooling but also the social context within which this schooling takes place. “ESS’s design intentionally embodies both model and city-level variations so the initiative and its accompanying evaluation can examine after-school programs in very different contexts. […] and offers an opportunity to identify the underlying issues involved in providing these programs, whatever the model and the local contexts in which they operate”.  

      One of the strategies to address the challenges faced by urban schools is the initiative known as ‘the London Challenge’. “Through the London Challenge, since 2002, we have learnt more still about the context in which London schools work, the needs of different students, and the unique combination of challenges this produces”.   The Minister for Education and Skills, Stephen Twigg has served as the head of this initiative since 2002. In his 2005 report, he addresses the specific social context of urban schools and describes the ways in which they have unique needs and why this strategy is so valuable.  

Urban schools are in distinctly different circumstances from other schools in England. They often face greater challenges of deprivation and need to respond to shifting populations. Their more diverse pupil population can be a huge strength but may mean that teachers need more skill, for example to respond to different language needs. Urban areas often also have vast cultural resources on which to draw, which can benefit schools.

      He points out that urban schools tend to have larger populations of students who come from poor socioeconomic backgrounds, yet at the same time they are far more ethnically diverse. The Minister’s report stresses the fact that this cultural mix represents both an opportunity for students to learn a great deal about various cultures from one another. At the same time however, it also generates a challenge for teachers and administrators who must learn how to understand the various cultural beliefs and value systems and be prepared to respond and communicate accordingly. In addition, the Minister addresses the key issue of leadership. He opines that strong educational leadership embodies the ability to harness the talents of not only the school staff but area agencies which can provide the type of additional support that many students in urban centers require. In this way, the school takes advantage of its community resources and at the same time becomes an integral part of that community. School leaders/administrators must know how to work in partnership with these agencies and how to partner with them appropriately. Another successful strategy for school leaders is to take advantage of partnering with other schools. He points out that several London boroughs have collaborated to form the ‘London Grid for Learning’ “[…] which has developed ICT across the curriculum and promoted the integration of ICT into whole school improvement strategies”.

      The Department for International Development’s (DFID) Enabling Effective Support (EES) points out that one of the key issues for all urban schools is the new social context that is known internationally as ‘globalisation’. Their report stresses that urban schools today are one of the best examples of the global village in which we live. Children today are not only exposed to a broad range of cultural ideas, values and beliefs, but they have access to an infinite amount of information due to the fact that we live in a highly inter-connected world. This is not simply a reference to the Internet but to the fact that we travel more widely than ever before, people come into our countries from unexpected places and information travels faster than it ever did in human history.  

      Urban schools are, to some degree, the small global village that children will experience on a much larger scale when they become adults and move into the world of work. Another factor is that many students in UK urban schools are individuals who have recently immigrated. Thus, their understanding of the educational system may be sparse and English might not be their primary language. Urban schools have this additional challenge and must devise ways of integrating these students while respecting their cultural backgrounds. As such, many of the UK’s urban schools must adopt a ‘global perspective’. In addition, they need to work with social service agencies, NGO’s, ethnic groups and a broad range of organizations in order to incorporate and adapt to this new perspective. The Department for International Development suggests specific strategies to deal with this. They include; curriculum development, improved access to resources for teachers, pilot projects to practice differing ways of being more inclusive and school networking across the regions in the UK.

      In a 2005 speech, David Miliband stated that urban living could be both challenging and exciting, yet it could also be somewhat bleak. Urban environments that have yet to face renewal efforts can be the most challenging as they are the poorest neighbourhoods in the UK. It is the children in these areas and these schools that often face some of the urban environments bleaker tendencies. This is where crime can be high, children can be witnesses to tremendous acts of violence, face periods of hunger, homelessness and other tragedies. These children live within the social context of loss and trauma. That is their urban environment. People who live in these environments can often feel hopeless in the face of these social, physical, emotional and economic barriers. This hopelessness can also translate into a sense of poor self-esteem and a lack of motivation. Thus, the urban environment can also be a mix of tremendous anger and frustration. To motivate children in these kinds of schools is one of the UK’s biggest challenges. According to Miliband one of the country’s greatest challenges is to regenerate and provide renewal for just such neighbourhoods.  

      Again, according to NCSL, the urban environment is often a hostile one and many of these communities are not only poor but apathetic towards education. In addition to trying to provide these students with a quality education, the headmaster often have numerous incidents to deal with especially in the more ‘troubled schools’. “ […] the urban difference lies in confident action despite ambiguity combined with a readiness to learn and adapt as more evidence arrives.   Further, this is not just about dealing with information but about interpersonal insights”.  

      The NCSL has gone beyond stating the problem. They have also identified what they believe are the core competencies required for strong leadership in urban schools with a high population of disadvantaged students. These competencies include the following: creating the future — has a vision for the school; leading, learning and teaching — takes responsibility for the quality of academia within the school; able to develop self and work with others; excellent managerial skills and always accountable.  

      The ‘London Challenge’ was a significant undertaking by the British government to improve educational standards in urban schools. This effort is governed by the Department of Education and Skills and is a highly ambitious program to generate the significant changes they see as absolutely essential to the educational system. “The Challenge has three levels: pan-London resources and programmes available to all schools;   Keys to Success provide individualised support to about 70 of the most disadvantaged schools; intensive work with five key London boroughs (Hackney, Islington, Haringey, Southwark and Lambeth) to help them reform their secondary school provision” (The London Challenge).  

      According to the government’s own report on this project, the results were as follows. “Results at GCSE have improved faster than in England as a whole. Between 2001 and 2005: the number of secondary schools with more than 55% of their students achieving five plus A*-C grades at GCSE increased from 142 to 195   GCSE results in the five key boroughs improved on average by 8 percentage points (over twice the national average)” (The London Challenge).

    A recent criticque on The London Challenge offers some valuable insights into the continued problem of disadvantaged students and urban schools. The criticque states that there is a growing disparity between the social classes in England, in particular between those who are wealthy and those who are disadvantaged. Unfortunately, this is leading to an increase in the country’s poverty rates and the problems that come with it. Within many of these poor communities, there is high turnover rate of both students and teachers.  

      Many teachers find the challenge of working in these urban schools too difficult for them. As a result, they leave in order to find a less difficult environment in which to work. At the same time, one of the great challenges is London’s ethnic diversity. “London’s students are highly diverse, coming from all over the world. Compared to less than 10% nationwide, nearly 50% of London’s primary and secondary students are of ethnic backgrounds such as Black Caribbean, Black African, Indian, and Pakistani5. In the greater London region, 32.1% of secondary school students and 37.4% of primary school students have English as an additional language(Lessons from the London Challenge).   This diversity presents a difficulty all its own. Teachers must be prepared to work with a diverse population of students who are also socially and economically disadvantaged. In addition, the educational system is new to them and thus, there must be both curricular changes and the ability to cope with such a broad spectrum of students needs.  

      Yet, there is still some hope from this model. In particular, one of the programs presents a positive step towards supporting strong and able leadership in London’s urban schools. The Consultant Leaders Programme works on the mentoring model in order to support the development of key skills necessary to provide strong leadership in these challenged schools. Participants attend seminars and workshops to develop and improve on key skills such as communication, decision-making, and establishing a positive relationship between teaching and learning. Another aspect of this model is the media awareness program. This part of the model brings a greater awareness of the educational system to the residents of London but also presents the educational system in a much more positive light. It highlights the success stories of the program which provides London residents with a sense of hope for the future of their students in ‘the system’.  

      The criticque is also careful however, to clarify that the full analysis of this program is incomplete. We do not yet have all the data on the program and therefore it may be too early to declare it an unmitigated success.  

Student test scores have improved, but this change cannot be directly attributed to the Challenge’s efforts, as a full evaluation has not yet been completed. Nonetheless, research is underway to study the Challenge and its programs that may provide a direct correlation between student achievement and the Challenge’s efforts. The Institute of Education is producing a booklet inspecting specific aspects of the Challenge, and further study subsequently will be conducted (The London Challenge (2006).

      The conclusion of this critique is that although there has been success as a result of this program, many of the core problems remain. One of these is the significant achievement gap between students from the majority culture and those from minority cultures. Another issue (which has been previously noted in this paper) is the fact of rising poverty in England and its presence in particular cultural groups and communities. While ‘The London Challenge’ is highly to be considered a successful project, at least to some degree, we must be cognizant of the fact that there are still urban schools that face significant challenges.  

      Leadership and policymakers cannot simply address these challenges by implementing one time only projects. While ‘The London Challenge’ certainly addressed some of the key issues, it is unlikely that a five year project can reverse or change all the problems that exist in London’s urban schools. First and foremost, policymakers must address the issue of the systemic problems/issues which exist in London society as a whole.   The issue of the growing disparity between the ‘classes’ in British society is a disturbing one. This indicates that while the wealthy gain in power and status, those who are poor have even less than they did before. Such a trend can serve as a source of disillusionment, anger and frustration on the part of those who see themselves getting less and less while the wealthy become even more so. This disparity cannot be addressed by looking only at the educational system. The system is a microcosm of society itself. It reflects the inequalities but not does address or change them.  

      Critical pedagogy is a movement which notes the disparities in society as reflected by the educational system. It is a philosophy and a movement which believes in disrupting the dominant discourse within the educational system in order to encourage students to challenge the status quo in their society. This may be one way in which to deal with this economic disparity in British society. Policymakers, especially those who influence educational decisions may need to re-think the educational system and ask themselves if this system can be used to disrupt and challenge the problems in British society as a whole. The fact is, these social inequalities cannot be met nor addressed simply within London’s urban schools. This is because these schools are a reflection of that inequality.  

      If policymakers truly want to change the urban schooling system, they must look at ways to address system inequality in England. One of the issues they must surely address is how to provide opportunities for people who are living in poverty and the opportunities to get out of that economically disadvantaged state. Second, they must certainly analyze and address why the economic disparity is growing in the country. The schools themselves cannot be the only aspect of society providing opportunities for those who are poor and/or disadvantaged. There must be opportunities for movement, change and growth in all aspects of society.  

A 2003 report by the NCSL was carried out by Wendy Keys, Caroline Sharp, Katy Greene and Hilary Grayson. The report is the result of a 12-year research project on urban schools and their challenges that was carried out between 1990 and 2002.   The definition of a ‘challenged school’ is stated as one “[…] where 25 per cent or fewer of the pupils achieved five or more grades A*— C in the GCSE and equivalent examinations in 1999, 2000, or both years. This definition can also be extended to primary schools, by using results from Key Stage Assessments”.   In addition, academic markers, the researchers point out the social indicators they used to determine what they would define as a challenged school. This included families who faced a significant number of social, psychological and economic problems.  

[…] many of the children were drawn from families on low incomes (with parents either in low-paid manual/service jobs or unemployed), in poor housing, and from families with little experience of education beyond compulsory schooling. In some cases, families were found to be exceptionally troubled. The communities served by the schools were often affected by elements of deprivation, such as bleak surroundings, poor facilities, poor health, dislocation and disaffection, and high levels of drug and alcohol abuse. Crime rates in the areas were often high (Keys, Sharp,

Greene and Grayson 2006).  


This definition of challenged represents a key point in this subject. The schools themselves are challenged because of the personal circumstances of many of those in the student population. In addition, they are often situated in poor neighbourhoods and have insufficient funding to address the multitude of problems they face. As a result, these schools are often ‘underachieving schools’ because of the personal difficulties for many of their students. According to these researchers, this can often lead to a cycle of underachievement and deprivation.  

The authors go on to point out that effective leadership in any school, whether it is poor and challenged or wealthy and successful, may have many of the same qualities. Leadership is about taking control of the situation and it is also about the ability to address the problems that exist in a very real and practical way. Good leaders are those who are able to adapt their style and maintain a constantly flexible attitude about what is required by teachers and students. They are also visionaries who are not afraid to lay down a plan and work towards very specific objectives and goals. Personality is also an important aspect of an effective leader and those who suit the challenged schools best may be a particular type of personality. “[…]headteachers best suited to the task of turning around a failing school were likely to have an animated, dynamic, charismatic approach. It was suggested that, to be effective, a headteacher’s leadership style needs to be attuned to the specific context experienced by a particular school” (Keys, Sharp, Greene and Grayson 2006).  

With respect to policymaking and leadership, these authors suggest that the first step is the ability to diagnose the problem.   There needs to be an accurate accounting of each school’s specific problems. While challenged schools may indeed share specific characteristics, each school must be viewed as unique and address the actual problems as opposed to those perceived and assumed. Once the specific problems are identified, then appropriate strategies can be adopted. The writers also point out that a key element may be that of the psychological approach taken by a headmaster. Specifically, they need to be able to motivate teachers and students and not adopt a sense of defeat or hopelessness. The school will take its cue from the headmaster and they need to be someone who can continue to be positive even in the face of the challenges they will undoubtedly face. “[…] staff (and pupils). Harris (2002), in her ten case studies of improving secondary schools, noted that a key concern for headteachers was one of maintaining staff morale and motivation. Staff self-development was vigorously promoted through in-service training, visits to other schools or peer support schemes” (Keys, Sharp, Greene and Grayson).  

These same authors point out that another characteristic of effective/good leadership is the ability to delegate appropriately and empower others to assume leadership roles as well. There are possibilities for students to assume roles as a mentor or volunteer, and/or teachers to develop/create programs and opportunities to take the lead in certain specific and appropriate situations. A good leader does not “have to do it all”, but they must be able to identify what needs to be done and who can do it most effectively. Effective leaders know how and when to delegate responsibilities and they do so accordingly. They are persons who are collaborative in style, set clear goals for everyone concerned, set a good example in the way they work, monitor the school’s progress and report to the appropriate authorities about both their successes and continued needs.  

Another specific concern for headmasters in challenged schools is the behavioural problems and issues presented by some of their students. Yet, they note that there the literature is sparse in terms of specific data on effective leadership strategies in these situations. They quote S.C. Carter who dealt with this issue in American schools. “When a school clearly teaches by example that self-control, self-reliance, and self-esteem anchored in achievement are a means to success that school’s own success inspires confidence, order, and discipline in its students”.  

The report also points out that school leadership must extend the mission of the school into the home. This essay has already pointed out the specific challenges that many families in poor circumstances must cope with. These families may become easily discouraged and are perhaps unwilling, or unable to see the ways in which education can help their children. The school must develop strategies for involving these families in undemanding yes positive ways. When the parents become involved and adopt a more positive attitude towards the school specifically and the education system in general, it is more likely that they will model appropriate attitudes and behaviour for their children.  

Policymakers must also adopt a more proactive stance towards such schools. They must engage in a continued and determined effort not to let these children fail. There are far too many disadvantaged children in the UK and if the funding, accommodations and support do not exist, the schools cannot hope to address these students’ needs. In addition, the authors suggest that such schools must embrace the widest possible support network in order to make the necessary changes.  

Sharp, Katy Greene and Hilary

[…] the most improving schools had been able to draw upon a wider range of relevant advice, assistance, support and consultancy than those that had made more limited progress[…]Types of external support mentioned in the publications we reviewed included: professional development programmes and/or courses; peer-learning strategies, including mentoring; external consultants; physical resources and funding; and support from LEAs. The final part of this section focuses on an article describing the support needs of special schools in difficulties.  

This brief review points out the multitude of challenges faced by urban schools and the contexts in which these challenges exist. It also provides some suggestions for the ways in which leadership and policymaking can address these problems/issues. As pointed out however, there is a systemic issue at stake here. While the schools themselves can address and deal with the problem, society as a whole in Britain needs to come to terms with the fact that poverty is increasing and the myriads of problems that accompany the state of living in poverty come with it.   Therefore, the British government and those in power need to make a serious and determined effort to change systemic social problems within the country. The fact is, until such wide scale changes are made, there will always be challenged, urban schools and there will always be a need to address these challenges with specific strategies that can adapt to changing and difficult circumstances.  


Department of Education and Training. The London Challenge for World Class Education. February 2005. 11 January 2007

Department for International Development. Enabling Effective Support. March 2001. 11 January 2007

Grossman, Jean Baldwin, Karen Walker & Rebecca Raley. Challenges and Opportunities in After-School Programs: Lessons for Policymakers and Funders. May 2006. April 2001. 10 January 2007

Keys, Wendy, Caroline Sharp, Katy Greene & Hilary Grayson. Successful Leadership of Schools in Urban and Challenging Environments. 2003 Spring. 10 January 2007

Lessons from the London Challenge. August 2006. 11 January 2007  

Miliband, David. Power to neighbourhoods: the new challenge for urban regeneration.  

      12 October 2005. 11 January 2007.  

National Council for School Leadership. A Model of School Leadership in Challenging Urban Environments.   10 January 2007

Stafford, William B. & Sam Kaplan.   “The Seattle Region’s Study Mission to Dublin: Learning From Ireland’s Success In Competing For Employment And Income Growth In The Global Economy.” Global Urban Development 1 March 2006: 6.

Wong, Kenneth, K. Transforming Urban School Systems: Integrated Governance in Chicago and Birmingham (UK). 1998 Publication Series No. 20. 10 January 2007  


 The report points out that many UK urban schools contain a broad mixture of students from a diversity of backgrounds including, Black Caribbean, Black African, Chinese, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian and others.  

 The entire plan and document can be accessed here:

 HARRIS, A. (2002). ‘Effective leadership in schools facing challenging contexts’,

School Leadership & Management, 22, 1, 15—26.


 CARTER, S.C. (1999). No Excuses – Seven Principals of Low-Income Schools Who Set

the Standard for High Achievement. Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation.

Contributed by:  Ilanna Sharon Mandel


  1. This is a very interesting article and I found it to be completely relevant to the current situation at many of the schools here in the U.S. I didn’t realize that U.K. urban schools had the same challenges as our schools regarding ESL (english as a second language), cultural diversity, and apathy of the students and their families toward education. It sounds like they have had significant success with some of their programs they have implemented to combat the problem. Most importantly though, it sounds like the British government recognizes education as a high priority, has committed to supporting the school’s efforts and not just provided lip service.

  2. Interesting article. We in Malaysia need to see school issues and problems in a broader perspective. Cultural diversity has been sidelined in curriculum implementation and design so that some school programmes are not relevant to children immediate need.

    • Akbar – Thank you for your comment. It's always great to hear from Malaysia.

      Hopefully the school administrators will see how important cultural diversity is in education.

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