Why are London schools so good? Politicians have been looking in the wrong place for the answers…

by Stephen Tall on June 23, 2014

Today saw the publication of an important report, Lessons from London schools for attainment gaps and social mobility. Commissioned by Alan Milburn’s independent Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, it’s the work of academics at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Institute of Education.

What it seeks to explain is what’s become known as the ‘London effect’ – the breathtaking transformation in educational outcomes that’s taken place in the capital over the past decade or more. Put simply, London’s state schools produce the best results in the country – and by far the best results for children and young people from low-income families.

The phenomenon’s long been noted, not least thanks to work by Chris Cook in 2012 (when he was education correspondent at the FT) and Gill Wyness’s 2011 CentreForum report. But the competing explanations have tended to be based on correlation and observation – and quite a lot of confirmation bias.

The most common explanations cited are the successes of London Challenge (a pan-London school collaboration scheme), Teach First (placing high-quality graduates in schools), and the academies programme (directly-funded schools). Also high on the list are immigration (80% of children in Inner London are from non-white backgrounds, and non-whites tend to perform better), higher per pupil funding (London schools get up to 40% more money), and greater competition among schools (owing to London’s urban density and easy transport links).

The report painstakingly works through all these explanations and a handful of others. What it finds is that, though many of those explanations are contributory factors, they are not the main driver of why London’s schools have improved so much, so fast.

The single biggest explanation of the ‘London effect’ is… what happened in its primary schools more than a decade ago. In essence, London’s primary schools, particularly in English, achieved great success between 1999 and 2003, which – years later – fed through into improved GCSE results.

Yet the most frequently cited causes (certainly by politicians of all stripes) – London Challenge, Teach First and academies – focused exclusively in secondary schools initially, their move into primary schools occurring after the big improvements in primary schools took place. That’s not to say they weren’t valuable – the report highlights that there is a more modest but still important ‘London effect’ also evident in its secondary schools.But most of the lessons policy-makers have taken from the success of London’s schools are based on the assumption that secondary schools have been responsible for the improvements – when, in reality, the improvement started earlier but took a long time to become evident.

Here’s the report’s summary conclusions:

There are three key lessons for policymakers in seeking to narrow the achievement gaps between more and less disadvantaged pupils across the rest of England:

First, the power of early achievement in primary schools is evident, particularly in terms of English scores: one of the major reasons why disadvantaged pupils in London and other big cities perform better at Key Stage 4 is that they had higher levels of achievement at Key Stage 2. This is consistent with a case for early intervention. Equally, however, we should not completely discount the role of secondary schools in sustaining achievements into GCSE and post-16 outcomes. Whilst the ‘London effect’ is translated into higher levels of participation in Key Stage 5, higher GCSE results in Manchester and Birmingham do not translate into higher levels of Key Stage 5 participation. This suggests that whilst a focus on primary schools is important in ensuring that disadvantaged students are equipped with the necessary skills to reach attainment benchmarks at the end of compulsory schooling, secondary schools have a role to keep those students on track to ensure they achieve the higher levels necessary to access Key Stage 5 and further study.

Second, partly because of the power of early achievements, improvements will take a long time to become visible in national results. Improvements in primary schools in London from 1999 through to 2003 became visible at GCSE between 2004 and 2008 and have only recently become part of accepted wisdom.

Third, given that achievements take a long time to become visible, we need to attribute recent improvements to policies much further back in time. 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 initiatives such as the London Challenge or the Academies Programme.

“Correlation is not causation” is a golden rule of science and statistics. Yet in politics correlation is the causation of most policies. That’s often been the case in education, where politicians look for instant, glitzy success. In reality, it seems early intervention is more important but that (unsurprisingly) this takes time to yield visible success.

Post-script: one of my colleagues at the Education Endowment Foundation, Eleanor Stringer, has written an excellent post – The “London effect” and the need for evaluation – highlighting that the lack of proper evaluation of government policies means that we’re still fishing in the dark trying to work out what was responsible for the transformation of schools there: ‘The IFS have done a great job of trying to disentangle the impact of different variables. But without the results of rigorous evaluations of the different interventions, we’ll always be making educated guesses.’


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