A number of Challenge Funds have been conducted across England over the last five years, where schools apply for external funding to support sector-led innovation. This funding has typically been used to develop and deliver schools’ own interventions, rather than adopt externally developed programmes. In 2016, Suffolk County Council (SCC) and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) launched a new joint Challenge Fund that took a different approach, by financially incentivising schools to adopt programmes with some existing evidence of impact of increasing pupil’s learning. Schools selected programmes from a choice of nine options, providing 50% of the commercial price of training and materials, with the EEF and SCC providing 25% each for the remaining costs.
More than a third of schools in Suffolk (116) were granted funding, and there are signs schools implemented the programmes with reasonable to good fidelity (although this finding should be treated with caution). There are also signs that the initiative had a positive impact on attitudes towards research use across the region, with schools feeling that the evidence-based programmes had met their improvement needs. Taken together, this suggests the Challenge Fund approach is a viable way of supporting schools to adopt evidence-based interventions.
Although the geographic spread of schools in the joint Challenge Fund was generally good, it was less successful in attracting schools serving poorer communities. Future Challenge Funds could seek to address this imbalance by further incentivising schools in challenging circumstances.