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.
Regardless of social class or ethnicity, growing up in London gave the average child a boost of 3.8 points over a child from the East Midlands, the second lowest performing region.
So pronounced is the benefit of attending school in the capital that researchers have come to refer to the “London effect”—the difference between the performance of a child going through school in London and his or her equivalent in other regions of the United Kingdom. An analysis by the Financial Times in 2013 used a points system based on GCSE performance to measure the attainment of children around the country. It found that, regardless of social class or ethnicity, growing up in London gave the average child a boost of 3.8 points over a child from the East Midlands, the second lowest performing region. The next largest boost came from growing up in the south-west, where pupils enjoyed a gap of just 0.876 points.
It can be difficult to recall today but in the 1990s and early 2000s the London school system was perceived by the press and much of the public to be a jungle. Jon Coles, who worked in a series of senior civil service roles in the Department for Education (DfE) between 2002 and 2011, remembers his first visits to schools in the capital: “There were schools I went into where you actually felt unsafe,” he says. Coles points to one, North Westminster Community School, as having a particularly threatening atmosphere. It has now been replaced by Paddington Academy, an Ofsted-approved “outstanding” school run by Coles’s academy chain United Learning. “You can touch and feel the difference,” he says.
Coles goes on to stress that, in terms of actual attainment, the supposed “crisis” in London schools at the turn of the century was perhaps overstated. We can now see that London was performing only slightly below the national average at the end of the 1990s. But impressions count, particularly when they are the impressions of senior Labour politicians bound by their position in public life to send their children to a state secondary school, but unable to find one that they like. Charles Clarke, Education Secretary under Tony Blair between 2002 and 2004, remembers the “angst of middle-class dinner table conversation… about ‘where’s Johnny going to go to his secondary school?’” Lord (Andrew) Adonis, a former Education Minister and the original architect of the academies programme, goes further: “Too many comprehensive schools [in London] were no-go areas not just for the middle classes, but for aspirational parents of all backgrounds,” he says.
Now, it isn’t just the middle classes who benefit from a London education: the city does increasingly well by its poorest students. In 2012, over half of all schoolchildren in the “Inner London” area on free school meals got five or more grades A*-C at GCSE, compared to 40 per cent achieving the same benchmark in the West Midlands, the next highest-achieving region. Disparities in attainment between pupils from rich and poor backgrounds are now significantly lower than anywhere else in the country. In 2003, a London child eligible for free school meals had a 35 per cent chance of finishing in the bottom fifth of national GCSE results. In 2012, they had only a 25 per cent chance of doing so. Nationally, as of 2012, a child eligible for free school meals had a 44 per cent chance of finishing in the bottom fifth, a probability which had increased since 2003, when they had only a 42 per cent chance of doing so. This effect remains in place up to A-Level: the proportion of children on free school meals in London achieving two A*-E A-Levels was 15 per cent higher than in the rest of the country in 2012. In 2002, it was just 3 per cent higher. Pupils of almost all ethnicities do better in London than their counterparts elsewhere, by a factor of between 1 and 3 per cent. The exception is white British pupils, who, according to Ofsted, do the same as or worse in the capital than their counterparts elsewhere.
London also benefits from its unusually powerful local government. For example, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, secured £20m in 2013 from the DfE for a “Schools Excellence Fund,” to promote advanced subject knowledge among London teachers.
The picture of the London education system is not a completely uniform one, however. Each of the 33 London boroughs has its own local education authority (LEA), responsible for some aspects of state education within its jurisdiction, including the distribution of funding to the schools it controls. These LEAs are divided into two areas: Inner London, which stretches from Hammersmith and Fulham in the west to Newham in the east, and from Haringey in the north to Lambeth in the south; and Outer London, an awkwardly shaped doughnut taking in the rest. Of the two, Inner London has improved more dramatically. Between 2002 and 2012, Outer London advanced from having the joint-third highest proportion in England of pupils achieving 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE to having the highest proportion. Inner London has gone from being the lowest placed region in England by this metric to the second highest.
There is variation, too, at borough level. Improvements in some individual London boroughs are particularly impressive. Tower Hamlets, a clutch of East End neighbourhoods encompassing the homes of some of the country’s poorest people and (in Canary Wharf) the workplaces of some of its most dynamic rich, saw a 34 per cent increase in the number of its pupils achieving five or more A*-C grades at GCSE between 2004 and 2012. Tower Hamlets is now a byword for excellence in educational circles. In 1997, Ofsted ranked it as the worst performing of 149 local authorities nationwide. By 2013, all of Tower Hamlets’ schools were rated “good” or “outstanding.” By contrast, Camden, a leafy northern enclave also in Inner London, saw just 16 per cent more of its pupils getting at least 5 A*-Cs over the same period.
It should be noted, however, that, as in much of the rest of the country, the improvement in London’s secondary schools appears to have stalled: 17 London local authorities this year had fewer good or outstanding schools than last year (though often only by one or two). But this does not alter the fact that something remarkable has happened in London’s schools over the past decade or so. The question is why, and how it can be replicated elsewhere.
Many of the schools reforms carried out by the Blair government coincided, more or less, with this period of improvement in London. These enjoy huge prominence in the academic literature on London schools and should not be ignored. Blair rode into office in 1997 partly on the back of an oft-repeated three-word phrase: “Education, education, education,” words so ubiquitous in his campaign that the Prime Minister-to-be even spoke them to an unemployed seamstress in a cameo appearance in a Russian radio soap opera that year. After he was elected, “national strategies” aimed at reforming the literacy and numeracy curriculums in primary schools, were among his government’s first major reforms, pushed through by then-Education Secretary David Blunkett. Adonis’s academies programme began three years later. “I had been yearning for this moment since my own school and university days in the 1970s and early 1980s,” Adonis recalls in his book Education, Education, Education, “[wishing] that someone in power would do something about the jungle which passed for an education system, from which few emerged with anything resembling an education.”
From the start, London was the main beneficiary of Labour’s reforming zeal. Blunkett laughingly recalls the genesis of the Excellence in Cities programme, which launched in 1999: “Tony was quite keen for it to be London, I was quite keen for it to be Excellence in Cities… so we compromised.” The programme would focus on improving education in six major urban areas (Sheffield/Rotherham, Manchester/Salford, Leeds/Bradford, Inner London, Liverpool/Knowlsey and Birmingham) and then try to identify what worked and roll it out nationally. Other cities, notably Manchester and Birmingham, have seen improvements similar to London’s—though much less pronounced—in the attainment of pupils eligible for free school meals. But none has benefited from the mix of policy intervention and social change that London has enjoyed.
The Excellence in Cities programme was followed by the London Challenge, a central government intervention on an unprecedented scale. Developed in 2002 and launched in 2003, the London Challenge was intended to mollify critics who criticised the Labour government for not delivering improvements to the lowest performing schools during their first term in office. Led from Westminster by Stephen Twigg, the minister responsible for London schools, the programme was delivered by a small team headed by Jon Coles and Tim Brighouse, an educationalist and leadership specialist.
The programme sought to identify the worst-performing schools—Coles says there were 50 of these at the start of programme—and give each a dedicated, experienced “advisor”: a former headteacher, school inspector or other senior practitioner who would help to deliver a programme of customised reform for each school. These were called “key to success” schools.
According to Brighouse, a particular strength of the programme from the start was its ability to pinpoint precise data demonstrating the effectiveness of a practice in a particular school, and to use this data to sell the method to other schools. One factor Coles highlights is the development of London- specific perks for teachers, including a more attractive pay-scale and access to housing schemes. He says these were central to solving the difficulties London schools once had with recruiting talented teachers, “giving people a better professional experience, better professional status, more professional development and more money… I think those things were crucial in tipping the labour market.”
Until last year, many assumed that the London Challenge was the primary catalyst for the London’s schools boom. It undoubtedly had a positive effect. The Centre for London report says there was a dramatic improvement in leadership—one of the London Challenge’s main priorities—at all levels of London’s education system, both political and in individual schools. It says London Challenge introduced the education system in the capital to the concept of “sector-led” improvement, whereby outstanding headteachers would not only lead their own schools to greatness, but help to thrust greatness upon others. The Centre for London analysis also shows that the majority of the five boroughs in which the London Challenge targeted particularly intensive support—Southwark, Lambeth, Haringey, Hackney and Islington—had by 2013 improved better than they were predicted to in 2004. Some of the cutting-edge methods now de rigueur in London’s state education system, such as the use of data to set individual pupil targets, were first popularised by the London Challenge. Cath Smith, head of Bow School in Tower Hamlets and a fervent advocate of data-based teaching, says working in London Challenge schools introduced her to “absolutely forensic analysis of data [from] individual students. The kind of model that came through the resources that [London Challenge] were able to put in, I have built on [since].”
However, the scale of the contribution made by the London Challenge has recently been called into question. Other government interventions that took place around the same time also had an effect. A number of the national education reforms enacted by the last Labour government took off better or faster in London than elsewhere. For example, Teach First, a graduate recruitment scheme launched in 2002 to coax top young minds away from the Bar or the banks and into the classroom, began in 46 schools in London and was not expanded elsewhere until 2006. Several of the educationalists I spoke to say that Teach First has made recruiting young teachers significantly easier in London. The Centre for London report argues that both Teach First and the London Challenge played a role in improving London schools, but the lack of rigorous impact assessments or region-specific data for them means it is impossible to isolate their respective positive effects.
Meanwhile, Tony Sewell, a former advisor to Boris Johnson on schools, thinks one of the most significant interventions made by the last government was the changes it made to Ofsted and the new transparency it introduced to school results. “What really changed schools around for London was the… accountability,” he says. “Working with schools was good, but also looking at other schools and seeing them outstrip you… making you get your game together… I think was a good thing.”
We cannot ignore the role of primary schools here, either. The “national strategies” in literacy and numeracy at primary level were taken up far more enthusiastically in London than elsewhere, largely thanks to more receptive local authorities. The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ research finds that, once you control for the improvement in primary schools over the past decade, the gap between Inner London’s secondary schools and the rest of the country’s almost disappears. Michael Barber agrees that this is a crucial part of the story. “If you look at the data now, what you find is there’s really significant improvement and growth in… Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Camden… [but] their policies on academies for example are totally different. Getting the literacy and numeracy problem identified and really addressed significantly in the first term… I think that made a big difference in the results.”
We should also consider the growing trend for school autonomy, which began under the last government but has accelerated under this one. The academies programme, which took failing schools out of local authority control and granted them greater independence, began in 2002 and progressed far more quickly in London than elsewhere. According to a 2007 National Audit Office report, by the summer of 2006, 40 academies were planned in London—more than double the number of academies planned in any other region—making London the only area where the estimated number of academies needed was smaller than the number in development. Following the passing of Michael Gove’s Academies Act in 2010, which made it much easier for schools to become academies, the number of academies increased dramatically; today, they constitute about two-thirds of UK schools. Gove also introduced 250 free schools nationally, a type of academy which can be started by parents and teachers in a local area. Where the proportion of academies in London is similar to that in the rest of the country, the growth of free schools in London has been more rapid than anywhere else.
It is difficult to make clear judgements on the impact of school autonomy on London, in part because many of the free schools are too new to have undergone an Ofsted inspection (though 75 per cent of those inspected so far in London are rated good or outstanding, against 70 per cent nationally). But Sewell thinks autonomy has been good for London, and will continue to be so: “Parents [have] some choice in the matter, it wasn’t a secret garden anymore,” he says. A spokesperson for Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, adds that a particular strength of the academy sector in London is its many academy chains—groups of schools which can share best practice and develop a clear ethos. The DfE announced a £10m package to encourage the growth of such chains elsewhere in the country in the Autumn Statement. The Centre for London report also notes that the arrival of an academy in a local area may have had an indirect effect on that area’s schools, by “apply[ing] pressure for improvement across the system through the existence of an alternative form of governance.” Morgan’s spokesperson also points out that the opening of nearby free schools reminds comprehensives that parents now have the power to make their own arrangements if they’re unhappy with local school provision. While London’s academies continue to grow and develop, it should be noted that Ofsted’s latest annual report warned that academies can become “isolated,” leading to a lack of accountability and underperformance.
Another piece of research released last year examined a different aspect of the London education system. Simon Burgess, a researcher at the University of Bristol, published a paper in October 2014 which argued that “ethnic minority pupils have greater ambition, aspiration and work harder in school… London has more of these pupils and so has a higher average GCSE score than the rest of the country.” He says that white British pupils, generally the lowest performing ethnic group at school, make up just 36 per cent of the children studying in London, against 84 per cent in the rest of England. “The basis for [London’s] success,” he concludes, “lies more with pupils and parents than it does with policymakers.”
It seems clear that an experimental culture has developed in London, one in which teachers, schools, governors and local government have been willing to innovate in the hope of improving their schools.
Tony Sewell says that working-class white boys fare little or no better in London than their counterparts, partly thanks to low expectations from teachers and parents. This might also explain part of the gap between Inner London and Birmingham and Manchester in terms of attainment of the poorest pupils: both cities are relatively ethnically diverse, but less so than London. But it is difficult to see how demographic change can account for all of the improvement in London. Tower Hamlets, for example, has throughout this period had a diverse mix of ethnicities in its schools. In the 2001 census, about 49 per cent of the population of Tower Hamlets was black and minority ethnic. By 2011, this had only risen to 55 per cent. Cath Smith says the impact of ethnic minority children and parents isn’t so straightforward. The parents of all her pupils have high aspirations, she says, but for some who haven’t been through the English education system themselves there is work to be done on “explaining what our demands are.” In the past, she would often need to find translators to talk to immigrant parents, though she has to do this less frequently today. The most significant reforms Smith mentions have more to do with schools building links with local mosques and youth groups to improve attendance. In some cases, it matters less what ethnicity local communities are than whether teachers properly understand the needs and wants of those communities.
It is difficult, therefore, to pin the improvement of London’s schools on any single policy intervention. Data is lacking on some of the more significant Labour projects: the London Challenge and the academies programme, for instance, did not have formal evaluation systems built into them. And the more recent reforms put in place by the coalition government have not been running long enough for a fair assessment of their overall effectiveness.
Nevertheless, we can draw some conclusions. It seems clear that an experimental culture has developed in London, one in which teachers, schools, governors and local government have been willing to innovate in the hope of improving their schools. London schools may get more funding, largely thanks to higher teacher salaries and high levels of pupil deprivation, but evidence suggests this has long been the case; schools needed to develop the right mindset to take advantage of it. From London’s country- leading use of data to the increased appetite among London parents and teachers to start free schools, the capital is more receptive to reforms, both large and small. To some extent, this has been the case since the late 1990s—it was London that most enthusiastically adopted the national literacy and numeracy strategies, for example. But it seems likely that the London Challenge contributed heavily to this by fostering a collaborative spirit across the capital in which schools shared their best practice and the best teachers brought new inspiration to failing schools. Coles says that the London Challenge’s entire modus operandi was based on experimentation: “A lot of what we did in London Challenge was absolutely below the radar. We tried something on a small scale, it probably wasn’t quite right, we tweaked it a bit… we didn’t do it on a big scale until we got some evidence it was working.” Anyone seeking to emulate London’s success elsewhere will need to foster a similarly adventurous climate.
It is also clear that London’s turnaround would not have happened without a culture of accountability. The catalyst for Tower Hamlets’s improvement, for example, was that catastrophic 1997 Ofsted report. The growth of academies in the capital has introduced competition and made schools more accountable to their parents and students. But the key contributor to this is the centralised nature of British politics itself: British politicians have felt more accountable to London because they lived there. As Brighouse puts it, “all the politicians live during the week in London… and so do the leading media people… They all meet for dinner, they all have kids that are going to transfer to secondary school at some stage.” The impetus for change that arose in London around the turn of the century will not appear elsewhere unless the current fervour for devolution extends to leading regional politicians being in greater control of education policy.
“Teachers used to be surrounded by cynicism,” says Brighouse. “We’ve abolished that in our thinking.” The London schools story is one of aspiration at every level, from pupil to parent to teacher to policymaker. It’s time to build that elsewhere.