January 13, 2013 7:35 pm

London schoolchildren perform the best

London schools have improved so rapidly over the past 10 years that even children in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods can expect to do better than the average pupil living outside the capital.

FT analysis of 10 years of state school exam results has revealed that living in the city now gives the capital’s children an enormous advantage over pupils elsewhere – and sets out the extreme difficulties the coalition will face outside the capital in achieving its aim of raising educational social mobility.

Looking at attainment in English, maths and their three best other GCSEs, pupils in the 100 neighbourhoods in the city with the highest benefit claimant rates get better than five Cs – stronger marks than the average non-London child.

As well as achieving higher grades, London has also closed the gap between rich and poor. In 2003, a London child living in one of the country’s wealthiest 25 per cent of statistical neighbourhoods could expect to beat a child in the most deprived quarter by one grade across five GCSEs. Now it is one grade in three.

Outside London, these differences are much starker. The equivalent rich-poor difference for the rest of England is one grade in six GCSEs. This distance is the same as it was, after controlling for changes in GCSE pass rates, in 2003.

The weakest school region in the country is Yorkshire and the Humber: pupils living in the London borough of Westminster can expect to beat children from a similar social background living in Hull by more than two grades in every single subject.

Yorkshire and the Humber is also England’s most unequal region: a child eligible for free school meals there would expect to be behind other classmates by more than two grades in three subjects. The gap in London is one grade in four GCSEs.

Simon Burgess, a professor at Bristol and director of the university’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation, said: “Understanding why attainment is so much higher in London is one of the biggest challenges for research in this field.”

Some of the city’s advantages are not easily replicable. Senior officials in the Department for Education note that outside the capital, there is more long-term poverty and lower aspiration for children outside the capital. They also note that schools far from London often struggle to recruit teachers and school leaders.

London also benefits from a flow of high-performing immigrant children who tend to boost schools’ results. However, even its poor white British children, defined as those eligible for free school meals, perform well. They can expect to beat poor white children outside the city by one grade in three subjects.

The capital has, since the early 2000s, been used as a proving ground for a range of national school policy reforms. Teach First, a charity which recruits high-performing graduates for schools, started in London a decade ago.

The city was also the seat of the “sponsor academy” movement, under which failing state schools were turned round by private sector groups. The country’s best academy chains, such as Ark Schools, are concentrated there. However, the capital’s success does not simply track these interventions.

Chris Husbands, director of the Institute of Education in London, attributes much of the city’s success to making teachers share best practice between schools – an attribute that he notes exists in the world’s leading education systems.

He said: “If you are a headteacher in Finland, you spend a third of your time working outside your school so that good practice can move through the system.”

A similar process now works across many of the capital’s schools.

He suggests that the roots of this practice are in the “London Challenge” – a citywide scheme that, between 2003 and 2010, audited schools to identify and solve their weaknesses. It also paired them together with suitable partners for collaboration on training.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector, was also a fan of the policy, which was brought to an end by the coalition in 2010. He told the Financial Times last year that London “wasn’t a good place to be in the 70s and 80s and 90s; now it’s one of the top performing parts of the country through London Challenge”.

Case study

In addition to changing the structure of the school system, Michael Gove has also sought to encourage a traditional curriculum. The most significant part of his plan is the “English bacc”, a league table measure, which encourages schools to offer a traditional array of subjects.

This metric ranks schools on what proportion of their pupils get a C or better in GCSE English, maths, two sciences, a foreign language and either history or geography. Government research suggests more schools now offer these subjects.

But there is opposition to this – and it is being led with remarkable vigour by a 78-year-old Tory peer. Lord Baker, who served as education secretary in the late 1980s, unveiled a league table measure to reward practical education.

The “Baker bacc” drops the language and humanities subject requirements. In their place, pupils are rewarded for passing a technical qualification, completing work experience, an extended project and showing they have employability skills.

Lord Baker is also opening so-called “University Technical Colleges” – UTCs. He has won approval for 33 of these employer-led schools which fit pupils out from the ages of 14 to 19 for technical trades, mostly engineering.

Lord Baker wants further funding for more schools – and has support from the Treasury and the business department. But his bids for further funding are being stymied by the education department. UTCs are expensive, officials say, and in any case technical education for 14-year-olds does not appeal to Mr Gove.

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