Why London’s secondary schools have improved so much

London’s schools have started to. David Parry/PA Wire

London’s secondary schools have seen rapid improvement in the last decade. Inner London moved from being the worst-performing region in England in 2003 to having better school results than any region outside London. Two recently published reports investigated the reasons why – but came to different, contradictory conclusions.

The first report, from CfBT and the Centre for London, argued that four interventions provided the impetus for the dramatic improvement of London schools: the London Challenge, a programme to improve London’s schools introduced by the previous Labour government between 2003-2008; the creation of academies with more autonomy than regular state schools; the Teach First graduate teacher recruitment programme that started in London in 2003; and an improvement in the quality of the support provided by local authorities.

The report’s conclusion is consistent with the findings of a number of previous pieces of research that have focused on the considerable impact of the London Challenge, both by me, in collaboration with colleagues, and from Ofsted. But it could be misleading because it identifies these as four separate initiatives rather than as part of the London Challenge’s overarching strategy to bring about improvement in London’s secondary and primary schools.

The second report, from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the Institute of Education (IoE), takes a different view:

Improvements in London seem more likely to have primarily resulted from changes occurring in the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as the National Strategies, than from recent policy changes such as the London Challenge and Academies Programme.

This is a surprising conclusion, and one that merits further investigation, because, as the authors point out, it has significant implications for policy.

Who the London Challenge helped

The findings of the IFS/IoE report appear very broad and dismiss previous claims of the success of the London Challenge, but my main concern is that this is somewhat misleading. Most of the analysis and evidence offered is limited to disadvantaged pupils, so the precise claim is that improvements in the primary school attainment of this group between 1999 and 2003 became visible at GCSE between 2004 and 2008.

It has long been known that before the London Challenge began in 2003, disadvantaged pupils (those receiving free school meals) in London performed above the national average, as the graph below shows.

Percentage of London secondary pupils achieving the expected achievement level in 2003, by eligibility for free school meals. National Pupil Database, Hutchings and Mansaray, 2013

But in 2003, London’s – and particularly inner London’s – overall performance at GCSE was poor for two reasons. Although the attainment of free school meal pupils in London was higher than that of their peers outside London, the sheer numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals lowered overall attainment. Those pupils not eligible for free school meals in Inner London also performed well below the national figure, as the graph shows.

The second graph below shows the changes that had taken place by 2012, just after the end of the London Challenge. The attainment of those pupils eligible for free schools meals continued to rise faster than it did elsewhere in the country. Particularly in Inner London, the attainment of pupils not on free school meals also improved faster than it did nationally.

Percentage of London secondary pupils achieving the expected level in 2012, by eligibility for free school meals. National Pupil Database. Note that the level pupils were expected to achieve changed between 2003 and 2012; so the percentages on Graph 1 and Graph 2 are not comparable

It is also worth noting that the London Challenge aimed for every pupil in London to be able to achieve their potential – not only those who were disadvantaged. But the IFS/IoE report ignores this aspect of the London Challenge’s achievements.

Nor does it look at the continued improvements to London’s secondary school attainment since 2008. That year, the percentage of London primary pupils who reached the expected levels in English (81%) and in maths (79%) were identical to the national figures.

Yet five years later, these pupils’ attainment at GCSE was well above that in other regions. So were the percentages of pupils making the expected progress in English and mathematics between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4 (the end of primary school and the end of secondary school). In each case, 6.5% more pupils in London made the expected progress than the national figures. So it is quite clear that for this cohort, it was London’s secondary schools that played the key role in their above-average attainment.

Cultural shift

The London Challenge was not simply about pupil attainment. It aimed to transform the culture of London schools and to fundamentally alter the narrative about education and aspiration in London, creating “a truly world class education system”. There is a mass of evidence to show that it succeeded in doing just this.

Before the London Challenge started there was a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention in London. Some schools were staffed entirely by supply teachers, and the reputation of London schools was deeply off-putting. The London Challenge’s work in improving teacher pay, setting up housing schemes, improving the image of London schools, and supporting the creation of Teach First helped to change this.

Qualitative evidence, including my own research, shows that a transformation has taken place in the ethos within London schools, creating effective links between schools and a strong sense of moral purpose and commitment to the success of every London child.

Ofsted inspections show a much higher proportion of good and outstanding schools in London than in any other region, according to a report published by the Liberal-leaning CentreForum think tank.

It is important that the work of the London Challenge is viewed holistically, rather than focusing narrowly on the attainment of one group of pupils. It would be a tragedy if this highly effective area-improvement strategy were ignored in future policy-making.