Something remarkable has happened in the capital's schoolsby Josh Lowe / January 22, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
In December 1995, after years of very public humiliation as “the worst school in Britain,” Hackney Downs, a state boys’ school in East London, was ordered by a central government task force to close its doors. Designed to accommodate 700 students, by this time the school had only 200 pupils studying in its dilapidated buildings. The government- appointed “education association”—or “hit squad,” as the press insisted on calling it—which closed the school pointed to the poor management of its finances and consistently sub- standard results. On the same site today stands Mossbourne Academy, the much-lauded super-school whose founding head, Michael Wilshaw, now leads Ofsted, the education inspectorate. In 2013, 83 per cent of its pupils achieved 5 A*-C grades at GCSE, against a national average of 59.2 per cent. According to Michael Barber, an educationalist who sat on the panel which closed Hackney Downs and later served in various senior policy roles in Tony Blair’s government, this was “a symbolic moment.” “Until then, London had been tolerating schools that everybody knew weren’t very good,” he says. “That was the moment when a statement was made.”
The turnaround in fortunes on the Hackney Downs site, while particularly dramatic, mirrors that of London’s schools more widely. Two reports published in 2014—one from the Centre for London, the other from the Institute for Fiscal Studies—confirm that something remarkable has happened in London education over the past decade and a half. Across the city as a whole, 64.4 per cent of pupils got 5 A*-C grades at GCSE in 2013—lower than Mossbourne, but still well above average. Compare that to 1997-98, when just 32.4 per cent of London pupils did the same, against 34.2 per cent of students nationally. In 2000-03, London had 9 per cent fewer schools rated “good” or better by Ofsted than the national average. London now has a higher percentage of schools rated “outstanding” by Ofsted than any other region in the UK. London primary schools have improved less significantly, but their pupils still do better at Key Stage 2 than those in the rest of Britain. London also contains Britain’s best faith school, although six private faith schools in Tower Hamlets were recently judged by Ofsted to be inadequate or failing. This follows a similar crisis in some Birmingham schools and is arguably not a problem specific to London.