The London effect did not just happen without hard work

Chris Husbands

For several years, the outstanding success of London Challenge has been a beacon for school improvers across the nation and beyond. The marked improvement in the performance of London secondary schools in the decade after 2002 has been a clear indication that school systems can be significantly improved for all young people, given commitment, imagination, investment and collaboration.

London schools significantly out-perform schools across England and the best of London’s boroughs – Camden, Tower Hamlets, Hackney – perform outstandingly well. In recent months, this narrative has been unpicked. The Institute for Fiscal Studies argued that the success of London’s secondaries was an illusion caused by earlier improvements in primary schools.

Now, in a more direct assault, Simon Burgess from the University of Bristol argues that it’s not the schools’ success of schools at all: London’s schools do well simply because of their pupil composition. Burgess concludes that “pupil progress on standard measures is significantly higher than the rest of England, 9.8% of a standard deviation. This is entirely accounted for by ethnic composition”. London schools, for Burgess, are not good; they are just lucky.

Burgess’s argument takes us straight to one of the longest lasting and most debated questions in social science: are social changes driven by structure or agency? For those who believe that the answer lies in structure, outcomes are largely pre-determined. To understand any social phenomenon, understand the social context, and unpack the deep social drivers which shape institutions. This view leads directly to Basil Bernstein’s famous dictum that ‘schools cannot compensate for society’. Education outcomes are largely read off from social patterns: class, gender, and ethnic differences in performance ­– which are the result of complex interactions. To improve a school, transform its intake, whilst the most important thing any society can do to improve education is to attend to wider social factors: income distribution, income inequality, standards of health care and so on.

Those who believe in agency take a different view: deprivation is not destiny, as the former Education Secretary, Michael Gove put it. No one is a prisoner of circumstances. Determined actions, by committed and driven individuals, can bring about change. Class, gender, ethnic influences are there but can be overcome, especially by determined individuals. To improve education outcomes, change the way teachers teach and schools work. In education, this view leads to interventions like the KIPP programme, or Teach First (which is explicit about breaking the link between material circumstances and outcomes). Education, on this view, can compensate for society – indeed, it has to.

The differences between structure-based and agency-based approaches are not usually reconcilable by reference to evidence. They are different ways of looking at the world. Burgess’s evidence is strong that structure – the ethnic composition of London schools – helps to explain their strong performance.

But if he is wholly right, how to explain the much poorer performance of schools in Leicester and Bradford? He does argue that Birmingham schools also perform well, using the same analysis of demographic characteristics. But parallels between London and Birmingham aren’t just about structure; they also involve agency. Tim Brighouse was formerly Chief Education Officer in Birmingham and then Commissioner for Schools in London and David Woods was Deputy to Tim in Birmingham and a successor in London.

Then there are those of us, including me, who argue that what needs to be explained is not just London schools’ absolute level of performance, but the rate of improvement: London performance improved sharply after 2002 – more rapidly than the rate of demographic change. Moreover, as Chris Cook pointed out, although London has a number of advantages, including demography and a well-qualified and well-trained teaching force, even its poor white British children, defined as those eligible for free school meals, “can expect to beat poor white children outside London by one grade in three subjects

The structure/agency debate has persisted for two centuries. I rarely take the risk of quoting Marx in this blog, but in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, he got it right: “Men [he really meant ‘people’] make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted”.

Contemporary social theorists have tended to look at the intimate relationship between structures and agency – Anthony Giddens’ developed the concept of ‘structuration’ to describe their interplay. There’s no doubt that the changing make-up of schools in London was a factor: it made some things more possible, for example mobilising community engagement with improvement. LKMCo’s report observed that improvement was more marked in some London boroughs than others. But it’s not enough.

Even Burgess acknowledges (pp 11 and 15 of his paper) that there are measures on which there is a London premium, and which are not wholly accounted for by the composition of schools. It’s the relationship between structure and agency that matters; getting interventions right in relation to circumstance. Put differently, the London effect did just not happen without hard work.

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Posted in Education policy, Leadership and management
5 comments on “The London effect did not just happen without hard work
  1. Graham Holley says:

    I enjoyed reading this. The variables are difficult to disentangle. But there seems to be more evidence pointing towards London Challenge having had some positive effect than to the contrary. The question then becomes one of choices between interventions that are likely to have been effective – and where is the next £ investment best spent (or, looking retrospectively, where might it have been).

    Presumably nobody argues that structures and agency are mutually exclusive? Structures can assist or militate against rising standards, but the brilliant teacher working with a willing student will arguably always do well.

  2. Sofia Ali says:

    I agree that the variables are hard to disentangle but I believe that London Challenge undoubtedly had a positive impact. I worked in 17 different schools on behalf of London Challenge on a particular brief which had been negotiated and agreed with senior leaders. The teachers I worked with were responsive, dedicated and extremely determined to make the intervention we worked on a success. The majority of students who were part of the targeted intervention made good progress and the teachers involved reported that they felt challenged, energised and more aware of their professional development needs as a result. The London Challenge adviser provided a bespoke set of support measures that matched the needs of each particular school and the outcomes were clearly measurable.

  3. dodiscimus says:

    I think the value of the IFS and CMPO reports is not that they convincingly disprove the impact of London Challenge but that they suggest that hard work, and a belief that deprivation is not destiny, are not the be all and end all of improving education outcomes. I think there is an unhelpful belief around that if London schools can do it then the only thing preventing others doing so is not trying hard enough, that if only all headteachers do what Michael Wilshaw did at Mossbourne then the educational gap will close irrevocably. The result of this way of thinking is that teachers are burning themselves out on 60+ hours per week and SLT at the behest of Ofsted are trying to engineer better progress from PP children than for others. We should all be working to improve the way we teach and the way we manage schools – we shouldn’t start thinking that we can’t do these things better – but the belief that all schools, or all parts of the country, can do what a few schools, or a couple of parts of the country have done loses track of those structural elements that do matter. This post is nicely balanced but actually from where we are at, it’s the IFS and CMPO that are making the most useful statement. Best wishes

  4. […] l'un des récents articles mis en ligne, Chris Husbands revient sur une question fondamentale en sociologie de l'éducation : l'action […]

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