London schools are among the best in the country. Many are, simply, amongst the best urban schools in the world. This was not true even half a generation ago. But the evidence on the success of London schools is clear. The headline statistics – as Sam Freedman pointed out in an important blog which draws together a range of evidence – undersell the story. Their real success is in their performance for children from poorer backgrounds: as Sam pointed out, 49% of London pupils eligible for free school meals secure 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and mathematics, compared to just 36% outside London, while disadvantaged London schools appear massively to outperform similarly disadvantaged schools outside London.
Sam’s blog tries to do two things: first to explain why London schools are now so good and second to work out what we can learn from that for education reform and improvement elsewhere. Both are quite complex. Sam’s explanation itself explores two dimensions. The first is the scale of socio-economic and demographic changes in London over the last 15 years, which have been striking. He quotes a Stephanie Flanders blog post suggesting that the value of property in London has increased by 15% since the recession began – at a time when real wages levels have fallen, and a remarkable map produced by Daniel Knowlson tracking the speed of gentrification in inner London. Indeed, those boroughs whose schools have improved most – Southwark, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney – are those which have changed the most. Put differently: one reason London schools changed is because London pupils changed. London schools became posher.
So London Challenge was working on fertile ground. The review evidence its positive. In 2010, OFSTED concluded that “London Challenge has continued to improve outcomes for pupils in London’s primary and secondary schools at a faster rate than nationally”, and attributed this to clarity of purpose, consistency of monitoring and “programmes of support for schools… managed by experienced and credible advisers”. Above all “London Challenge… motivated London teachers to think beyond their intrinsic sense of duty to serve pupils well within their own school and to extend that commitment to serving all London’s pupils well”.
The most systematic evaluation of City Challenges, including London Challenge, noted that London head teachers themselves were convinced that London Challenge had made a difference, though it concluded, with due academic caution, that “A great many factors contributed to this improvement, including national policies and strategies and the considerable efforts of head teachers and staff. However, these factors apply everywhere in the country. The most plausible explanation for the greater improvement in Challenge areas is that the City Challenge programme was responsible”.
There were attempts to export London Challenge elsewhere in England: to Manchester and the Black Country. Sam wonders why these were less successful, though he underplays the success of Manchester.
This for me is where the issues become more interesting. There are, I think, three reasons why it has proved more difficult to export London Challenge. The first is the issue of scale: there are 400 secondary schools in London. Performance benchmarks can be finely calibrated: the now famous families of schools data comparing performance put schools into over 20 families each of 20 or so schools. It’s difficult to get such rich benchmarking at smaller scale.
The second is the problem of hindsight; London Challenge was a great success. But it was not a single thing: it was a package of policies. It included school-to-school support, it included the development of the Chartered London teacher scheme, it included improvements to teacher supply; it included academisation of schools. These were not done to a pre-ordained plan: they were customised to different settings. We look back on a policy initiative called London Challenge, but it wasn’t like that as it developed. And this makes it difficult to replicate. London Challenge looked different depending where you looked from – which makes it difficult to copy and transfer. London Challenge, moreover, was well funded – schools that were already well-funded by national standards were even better funded as a result.
And finally, there is the issue of context: London was changing. The changing demographics of London were part of that context. Other towns and cities are changing too, but in different ways.
All these things make the story complex. The key message of London Challenge: ambition for every child in every school is transferable. Some of the policy levers are transferable. But the way they combine and are used together demands careful attention to context.