Why are schools in London so successful? By Barnaby Lenon

In the late 1990s London schools were the worst in the country.  Today they outperform schools in the rest of England, achieving the highest proportion of students obtaining good GCSEs, the highest percentage of schools rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted and the highest GCSE attainment for pupils from poorer backgrounds.

There is some uncertainty why this happened, which is a pity because it is so important!

Here are a few possible reasons:

1 The London Challenge

In the London Challenge (2003-2011), managed by the Department for Education, the exam results of socially similar schools in London were compared and this made it possible to challenge under-performance on the compelling grounds that if other schools were doing much better with a similar intake of students, significant improvement was possible. The use of data, therefore, generated both optimism and urgency about the need for change.

An important element was buy-in by schools, driven by a moral imperative to improve the results for disadvantaged pupils. Improvement work was to be done with them, not to them.

The focus was on training existing teachers to be more effective. This was done by external experts and by the best teachers in the area. The main COST was providing cover for the teachers to have time off to be trained or to train.

The training happened in Teaching Schools. The host school teachers gave the training to 15 or so teachers from the schools being supported. A teacher in each supported school was appointed the in-house mentor to help the trainee develop back in their own school.

Each school is different and had an adviser to offer bespoke solutions for that school. The advisers were often former HMIs, senior educational consultants, former heads or directors of children’s services. They were experts who knew how to fix a problem. They worked in partnership with the head. They built a capacity for further internal improvement after they stopped.

So the key elements of the London Challenge were:

  •  a focus on data and data literacy
  • the culture of accountability
  • the creation of a more professional working culture
  • a collective sense of possibility
  • highly effective practitioner-led professional development

An Ofsted report summarised the effect of the London Challenge:

‘Working with teachers from other schools with similar challenges, outside the confines of their home school, enabled frank discussions of strengths and weaknesses in their own teaching, free from concerns about performance management or the disapproval of peers. In particular, a high proportion of time was dedicated to reflecting on and reviewing their own teaching, and their understanding of pedagogy. This taught teachers to become reflective practitioners and they began to share that skill with their colleagues at their home school, under the guidance of the school mentor.’ (Ofsted, 2010)

2 Improving primary schools

Research by Greaves et al (2014) showed that the higher GCSE results of disadvantaged pupils in inner London compared to the rest of the country after 2004 can be largely explained by their higher Key Stage 2 results at the end of primary school education. The explanation for the good GCSE schools in London after 2004 should therefore be related to changes in London’s primary schools in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Initiatives such as the London Challenge were unlikely to be the major explanation as they happened too late. Nor could it be due to ethnicity, as is sometimes claimed, as this did not change significantly at this time.

The improvement in London’s Key Stage 2 scores at age 11 occurred almost at the same time as the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies were rolled out, and London local authorities made up many of the pilot areas for these programmes.  According to Greaves, this was the reason the GCSE results improved.

3 Academies programme

Many of the first Academies were set up in London in the early 2000s.  The Academies programme helped to raise standards in London because it removed some of the worst-performing schools from local authority control and, in the most successful cases, transferred them to very effective groups of independent trustees.  Successful academy chains in London, such as Ark Schools and the Harris Federation, have been outstanding.

4 Teach First

Teach First also helped because it recruited some of the brightest graduates coming out of university and put them in the worst London schools – they now make up about 6% of all London teachers and a much higher proportion in inner London.  Teach First was introduced in London secondary schools in 2002 and in London primary schools in 2011.

5 Free schools

London has benefited from a number of exceptional free schools, established since 2011.  Free schools are Academies set up by groups of teachers or local parents.  Most notable have been the West London Free School, the Michaela Community School in Wembley, the London Academy of Excellence in Newham, Harris Westminster Sixth Form and King’s College Maths School.  These schools achieve far better results than any state school in London did before 2012.  The latter three are among a group of new London schools obtaining remarkable rates of entry into Oxford and Cambridge.

6 Ethnicity

Other researchers (Burgess, 2014) have claimed that the relatively large proportion of London school children who come from minority ethnic backgrounds must be a reason for London’s good results.  Over the past twenty years the children of immigrants have risen up the league table of exam results so that working class white pupils are now bottom and groups like those of Bangladeshi ethnicity have risen rapidly.  A high proportion of pupils in London are the children of immigrants and immigrants attach great importance to education as the quickest way to move up the social mobility ladder.

Each of these six factors has played a part, as, no doubt, has the economic dynamism of London compared to the rest of the country.

By Barnaby Lenon

Dean of Education, University of Buckingham

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  1. Re the London Challenge approach of training existing teachers so they improve, getting them to work with wider schools for guidance and mentoring; why isn’t this the approach for failing schools everywhere? Ofsted even notes how successful that is but the whole Ofsted model seems more dunces hat type public shaming rather than collaborative and constructive training and upskilling.

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