LONDON SCHOOLS HAVE SEEN RAPID IMPROVEMENTS
Why, how, and what lessons can we learn?
Two reports have been published recently on the success of London’s schools in raising pupil attainment and narrowing the achievement gap. The most recent, from The Centre for London and CfBT Education Trust, was published last week- “Lessons from London Schools: Investigating the Success,”. The other, slightly earlier report, was from The Institute for Fiscal Studies for the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission ‘ Lessons from London schools for attainment gaps and social mobility’, published on 23 June. The reports should be read in conjunction to get a handle on the complexity of what was happening in London, and the different interconnected variables at play that contributed to improvements in student outcomes.
The unanswerable fact, of course, is that London Schools have improved dramatically since 2000.If you happen to be a disadvantaged child you probably have better education prospects now in London than almost anywhere else in England.
The CFBT report found, for example, that ‘Pupils living in the most deprived neighbourhoods in London are more likely to achieve 5+ A*-Cs at GCSE (including English and mathematics) compared to their peers in the nearby South-East region. Schools serving disadvantaged pupils in London are more likely to have ‘Outstanding’ teaching and leadership than elsewhere in the country’.
The IFS report suggested that ‘The major explanation for this higher and improved (London)performance does not seem to relate to the effectiveness of secondary schools and various initiatives targeted at London’s secondary schools over the last decade, as is often suggested. Instead, the improvement is more likely to be due to the increase in attainment at primary school over time for disadvantaged pupils in London’. In short, a large proportion of ‘the London advantage’ in GCSE performance could be explained by prior attainment at primary school level, with the report highlighting London’s achievement in English at Key Stage 2.’
The CFBT report found ‘Four key school improvement interventions provided the impetus for improvement – London Challenge, Teach First, the academies programme and improved support from local authorities.’
The report said ‘Our research identifies common features that link together all of these interventions:
a focus on data and data literacy
the need for a culture of accountability
the creation of a more professional working culture
a collective sense of possibility and highly effective practitioner led professional development.
The improvement of London schools also depended upon effective leadership at every level of the system.
‘The research shows that the success of London schools cannot be explained in terms of the ‘contextual’ advantages that London has over the rest of England – factors such as gentrification, ethnicity and opportunity.
‘The improvement was assisted by a set of factors that we describe as ‘enabling’, these include issues relating to resourcing: finance, teacher recruitment and school building quality. Improvement in these areas enabled improvements to flourish but London’s success was not fundamentally caused by these factors.’
The CFBT report, although including quantitative analysis, is clearly more focussed on qualitative research – specifically interviews with headteachers, academics, civil servants and other experts. The report argues that London’s schools exist in a particular context and that this has shaped improvement but does not fully explain it. Instead, the authors conclude, there were barriers to success, such as recruitment and funding, which impeded school improvement in the 1990s. Once these were tackled and reduced, excellence was secured by creating a sense of collective moral purpose and possibility through outstanding, data-driven leadership at every level (whether in Local Authorities, academy chains, by system leaders).
The CFBT research concludes with seven key lessons from the success of London’s schools which could be applied throughout the UK and internationally:
Ensure that policy is based on hard evidence of effectiveness
Maintain a sustained and consistent policy momentum for change over time
Use performance data systematically to make the case for change
Transform underperforming schools through well-managed, sector-led school improvement activities
Develop an effective ‘middle tier’ to support sector-led improvement activity
Ensure that teaching is a career of choice for talented and idealistic recruits
Apply pressure for change through allowing market entry to new providers of education services
It was outside of IFS reports scope to look at the whole education system, across the period of improvement, but given the sequence of events, the IFS report suggests that the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies may have played an important role.(CFBT Education Trust , by the way, were responsible for getting the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies off the ground ,managing them, initially, on behalf of the government before Capita took them over for the second phase).
The IFS also ,though, found that even controlling for primary performance, a secondary school advantage remained. Furthermore, Chris Cook of BBC Newsnight has argued that the IFS may have substantially under-estimated the size of the London effect at Secondary level, since London schools have been less reliant on low quality ‘equivalent GCSEs’
The two reports do seem on the face of it to contradict each other.
The IFS report argues that programmes like academies, Teach First and London Challenge cannot explain London’s success because they were not prevalent in primary schools during the period of improvement.
Sam Freedman says ‘At first glance it’s hard to reconcile the positions taken in the two reports. The IFS focus on primary, and to a lesser extent pupil characteristics, while CFBT focus on secondary policy changes. I think, though, they are two different bits of an extremely complicated jigsaw that hasn’t been finished yet – and because of the lack of evidence/data – never will be. Like the apocryphal blind men with the elephant they’re looking at different parts of the whole.’
Hence it makes sense to look at the reports, in tandem.
Everyone knows the name of Professor Tim Brighouse, whose leadership helped provide the glue and was so crucial to the London Challenge. Less well known though ,and who are always given credit by Brighouse, is the crucial role played by a cohort of inspired London Heads, pulling together and demonstrating effective sustained leadership throughout the system, helping each other and collaborating effectively . Also the support work undertaken by Professor David Woods and others , which enabled meaningful collaboration to work between schools and groups of schools to help drive up student outcomes and narrow the attainment gaps.
LKMco helped with the research for the CFBT Education Trust report and Loic Menzies ,an LKMco Director, responding to IFS’ view on the role of Primaries wrote:
‘ To some extent this is true. Similarly, we found no one London story when it came to these programmes: different boroughs had contrasting experiences and trajectories. No single programme or policy can claim credit for the improvement: some boroughs had many Teach First-ers, some had few or none; some opted for rapid academisation or outsourced their local authority, others drove improvement through their borough leadership; some had large numbers of Keys to Success schools (the most intensive London Challenge intervention) some none. Yet almost all succeeded.’
Menzies, identifies four approaches that worked in London: dealing with barriers to success, such as teacher shortages and dilapidated buildings; the systematic use of data; a willingness to intervene on the part of central and local government and the use of positive language to create a sense of identity and moral purpose.
Menzies stressed the importance of a London narrative and identity. He wrote ‘A shared identity and a moral purpose was created and reinforced by using positive language about ‘London Schools’, ‘London Teachers’ and being ‘the best’. These were reinforced by programmes like Chartered London Teacher, Key Worker Housing and professional development opportunities, all of which were symbolically powerful. These changes were coupled with a new sense of possibility involving ambitious goals and school collaboration which illustrated what might be achieved. Whilst this sounds intangible, the contrast with the much maligned ‘national challenge’ could not be clearer.’
There is another complicating factor, which Nick Morrison flagged up in a Blog – London’s changing demographics.
Morrison says ‘ Although the two reports disagree on the effect of the changing populations, a raft of economic and social indicators – from house prices and average incomes to participation in higher education and English as an additional language – show a growing disparity between London and the English regions. London has always been a magnet for talent, sucking in the ambitious and the driven. What has changed in recent years is that this has reached such a point that London is now quite distinct from the rest of the country. This is bound to have some impact on education in the capital.’
Steve Munby, Chief Executive of CFBT Education Trust, wrote ‘’The London story is above all about the power of purposeful leadership at every level of the system. From national politicians to headteachers, leaders were responsible for driving the changes. One of the most innovative aspects of the London renaissance is the role of head teachers as system leaders, taking responsibility not just for their own schools but other schools in their communities. London has shown that the theory of system leadership can be turned into an exciting ‘high impact’ reality’.
The great challenge now facing our self-improving school system is how to replicate the London success story in other cities but, also, crucially, what lessons are applicable in rural areas and seaside towns where many disadvantaged pupils are educated. You couldn’t simply transplant the London Challenge for example into another city or rural area and expect the same results but there are some lessons to take on board. We also need to evaluate more carefully the on-going collaboration programmes whether in Wales or elsewhere ensuring that this is a data rich environment and we are constantly evaluating what is happening . And, as Morrison points out, if you want to work out what will work elsewhere it is just as important to understand how schools differ as it is to discover what it is they share in common.
LESSONS FROM LONDON SCHOOLS -INVESTIGATING THE SUCCESS
Sam Baars, Eleanor Bernardes, Alex Elwick, Abigail Malortie, Tony McAleavy, Laura McInerney, Loic Menzies and Anna Riggall-June 2014 –Centre for London, CFBT Education Trust .The report was written with support from LMKco
Schools Minster David Laws spoke at the reports launch, 27 June, with CfBT’s director for research and development, Tony McAleavy delivering a synopsis of the report. What it was like to be a Head under the London Challenge was described by Dame Joan McVittie. There was then a panel discussion, joined by consultant Robert Hill and Sam Freedman of Teach First.