The birth of Challenge Partners

After Teaching Schools, the next logical step was to take the principle nationwide. In this post we examine the conditions that led to the conception of Challenge Partners.

In response to the announcement of the designation of Teaching Schools in the Education White Paper published by the Coalition Government in 2011, we formed Challenge Partners. It was to act as our umbrella Collaborative Learning Community for our Teaching Schools. It brought together our 12 Teaching Schools which were drawn from the first 100 to be designated.  Each Teaching School also came with a hub of schools which agreed to work closely with them. In the majority of cases this did not include all the schools they had identified in their Alliance for their Teaching School application. Consequently, there were 71 schools involved.  

We registered Challenge Partners as a schools-based charity with Dame Sue John and Dame Yasmin Bevan, Sir John Coles and myself as the trustees and co-founders.  This leadership group was rapidly expanded to include all of the heads of the other Teaching Schools involved. In addition, project management skills were provided by Mark Goodchild and Katherine Stevens.  Mark would soon go on to be the Charity’s first Managing Director. 

Following  our own experience of developing Teaching Schools and our observations of the working practice of the successful academy chains, we adopted a strategic approach to the development of Challenge Partners. We were determined that the Teaching Schools which formed the Partnership would be, as far as possible, encouraged to develop their hub of schools locally.  This followed the successful academies model but also our experience had shown that if the distance between schools involved more than a lunch-hour of travelling, it was difficult to provide the coaching and mentoring that ensured in-depth learning took place between them.

The leaders of the Teaching Schools were known as Senior Partners and we charged ourselves to play a systemic leadership role not only within our hub and Challenge Partners, but nationally. Many were elected onto the Teaching Schools Council, with Carolyn Robson CBE serving as Deputy Chair for several years. In addition, Dame Sue John became the only non-executive headteacher serving on the newly formed Board of Directors of the Department for Education, established and led by the then Minister of State for Education, Michael Gove. This was a role she was to carry out between 2011-2014. The initial success of our work was such that Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State was quoted in 2013 as saying:

I am grateful for the invaluable work that Challenge Partners plays in driving up standards in schools through peer-to peer reviews.  It is vital that we encourage collaboration and sharing of best practice between schools”

Our experience had shown us that if we wanted a say in shaping the education system in the future we would be more likely to do that if we were seen to be successful within the current regime. That meant our schools would have to perform well in public examinations and in their OFSTED inspections. 

We encapsulated our ambitions into four aims:



Within the hubs, we set about identifying potential Teaching Schools. These schools would shelter within the hub until they had the capacity to effectively stand on their own two feet and run their own hubs.  In order to assist in building this capacity, the headteacher of these schools would be asked to play a systemic leadership role within the Partnership by being asked to join the Senior Partners’ group. 

As the Teaching School concept had been devised predominately by London secondary schools, it was inevitable that the makeup of Challenge Partners at this early stage would reflect this. However, we decided that we would work hard to recruit Teaching Schools from across the country and other phases so that eventually the Partnership would mirror the national distribution of schools both geographically and by phase.  

It didn’t prove as easy to address the issue of a long-term resource base.  We did gain some significant sponsorship and grants from the DFE. In addition, each Teaching School made a contribution to the start-up fund and the Senior Partners provided their service on a pro-bono basis. 

We believed that if over time we continued to achieve our aims, we would convince all of our parents, staff and students of the validity of the approach. We accepted that at a local level this could be problematic and only time would tell if any prejudice would be removed. In the interim, all we could do was be open about our approach and our impact and be positive to any partner who chose to work with us.  

An emotional debate for some of the Partners revolved around whether we should work with Academy Trusts.  We decided collectively, however, that as we were concerned solely about school improvement and there was no evidence to suggest that academies at that point had a positive or negative impact on the education they provided, we should work with all schools regardless of their governance structure.  As a result, Haberdashers’ Aske and United Learning joined the Partnerships. 

As to the concerns we had expressed about the merger between Teaching Schools and Training Schools, we would keep a weather eye on developments and use what influence we had to positively support this fledgling programme.

We determined that in  overall response to this context, Challenge Partners would provide programmes in three broad areas:

By the time of the publication of the Challenge Partners’ annual report for 2013, there were 20 hubs with 238 schools involved, with the schools  distributed across most of England. Primary and secondary schools were equally represented, along with a good number of special schools. The percentage of students registered for Free School Meals was above the average and the aims of the Partnership were being met.  

It was rewarding to see first hand at the 2020 Challenge Partners’ annual conference that the Partnership continues to meet its aims, thrive and expand under the leadership of its Chairman, Sir Jon Coles, CEO Kate Chhatwal OBE and Dame Sue John, Executive Director, who are supported by their dedicated Central Team and Board of Trustees.  The Partnership currently consists of 43 hubs, comprising 480 schools and more than 252,000 students.

If you are interested in discovering more about this unique organisation, you will find further information at