There’s isn’t a specific recipe for the success of London’s schools – but it is time to come up with one.
Anyone who remembers London’s state schools before the 2000s will tell you of how much better they are today. One former headteacher summarised this well for a previous Centre for London report:
“From being the worst performing region in England to the best performing region in England in a period of not much more than ten years is a very considerable achievement.”
It is a particular point of pride that, in a city where the child poverty rate surpasses 35 per cent, disadvantaged pupils also seem to be doing well at school – at least relative to their peers outside London. FFT Education Datalab, an education research institute, has found that London’s disadvantaged secondary school pupils, defined as those who have received Free School Meals at some point in their education, make greater progress in school than disadvantaged pupils outside London.
But there are least as many causes for concern as there are for celebration.
1. The profile of pupils, rather than London schools, is the main determinant of their progress at school
We now know, thanks to the assiduous work of educationalists, that the most important explainer of the turnaround of London’s schools is a change in the profile of London pupils. London pupils are more likely to be from migrant backgrounds than their previous generations, or peers outside London. Kids from these backgrounds tend to do relatively better at school, even those growing up economically disadvantaged.
On the other hand, there are groups of pupils who do not fare any better in London than outside. It is the case for disadvantaged secondary school pupils who are from White British, Black Caribbean, and Mixed Black and White backgrounds.
So despite their better results, schools in London are not necessarily any better at serving their disadvantaged students than schools outside London.
2. The more disadvantaged pupils are, the lower their GCSE results are, and the less progress they make in school
Sadly this holds true for London. The longer pupils have been receiving Free School Meals, the greater the gap with those pupils who have never been eligible for them – both in terms of results and progress made. London’s secondary schools may be good or outstanding, but on average they don’t enable disadvantaged pupils to catch up on their non-disadvantaged peers. And this data is only available for “state-maintained schools” – as private school-educated pupils are not counted in attainment statistics – so the gap may be wider than we think it is.
3. London pupils may be doing better than rest of the country on average, but in international assessments the performance of London pupils is not outstanding
The last urban school rankings found London pupils outperformed by their peers in Sydney, Toronto and Madrid in reading, maths and science. This is despite the strong emphasis on literacy and numeracy placed by successive UK governments. In an economy that values cognitive skills and openness to the world’s talent, these results signal that there is room for improvement.
London schools will need support to deal with these issues. The skills gained at school matter hugely for future social mobility, according to the government’s own analysis on social mobility. What works to improve the schools that have a high proportion of pupils less likely to do well? What lessons can we learn from cities where pupils seem to perform better in international assessments? Do we need more ambitious objectives for social mobility?
At the moment there isn’t an institution responsible for driving innovation and improvement in London’s schools, and act on the evidence developed by education experts. Policy and regulation are both elaborated by central government bodies and education is not an area that London has any power in, though the Mayor of London has a Deputy celebrating good practice in the city’s schools.
Recent governments have worked to weaken the power that local authorities once exercised over schools, partly through promoting academies and free schools, beyond council’s control, and partly by cutting their education budgets. Against that backdrop the Mayor looks better placed than remote central government to provide leadership and oversight of London’s schools. Without someone to take more strategic responsibility for the capital’s education system, the progress made in recent years will stall and London’s children from less advantaged backgrounds will continue to fall behind, making a mockery of the ideal of London as a city of opportunity for all.