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In January, Tatler magazine published an article about the best schools in London. No surprise there, perhaps.

The glossy magazine for the hoity-toity has often run pieces on the relative merits of Eton or Harrow or another independent school. But this time it highlighted London’s state secondary schools, which over the past decade have established themselves as the best in the country.

The idea that the capital’s state schools should be considered alongside vastly more expensive establishments would have been fanciful in the late 1990s. Then, areas such as Islington and Hackney were rife with failing schools. But from about 2002 onwards there has been a radical improvement.

London pupils have better average GCSE results than pupils anywhere else in England. Attainment by the poorest children is higher than that of deprived young people in other parts of the country. Consequently, the capital is increasingly seen as a successful model by reformers across the world.

What are the secrets of London’s transformation?

One theory is that it has little to do with what happened to the teaching in London schools and everything to do with the types of pupils that go to them. According to this argument, gentrification and immigration brought better off or at least more highly motivated parents into inner London, thereby improving the stock of bright young things. In June, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think-tank, published analysis that suggested the improvements at secondary school level in London could be traced back to better results at primary school, lending support to the idea that external factors may have had a role.

However, other analysts argue that secondary schools do deserve credit. Some commentators suggest that when one looks at results in harder GCSE subjects such as maths and English, the impact of secondary schools appears stronger. Something impressive has happened.

The Centre for London agrees that the London effect is not primarily due to gentrification or immigration. In a report published in June, the think-tank says that pupils of all social and ethnic backgrounds did better over the past decade, not simply the richest or those from ethnic minorities. It concludes that: “the improvement [in the city’s secondary schools] cannot be explained in terms of ‘contextual’ advantages that London has over the rest of England”.

Part of the answer must be found in what the schools actually did. Their funding increased but little more than elsewhere in England. The money mainly went to paying teachers a wage premium to cover the relatively high costs of living in London. (One suggestion is that high-quality teachers stay in London because their partners have jobs that cannot be done outside the capital.) A more important change, says the Centre for London, was the mix of innovative policy initiatives that emerged over the course of the decade.

The think-tank highlights four policies. First, a programme that saw the worst schools taken oven by independent providers and turned into “academies”. Second, Teach First, a scheme to place top graduates in poor-performing schools for at least two years. Third, new incentives offered by local governments to improve schools. Fourth, the London Challenge programme that fostered collaboration and best practice among London’s teachers.

Together, these ingredients created a magic brew of school improvement. They ensured that London’s schools adhered to the international evidence about what seems to improve educational performance: school autonomy and accountability, challenging curriculums, strong data-driven leadership and highly qualified and well-motivated teachers. As in many other areas, in education, the capital is increasingly a world apart from the rest of the country.

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