Our research

Research report

Sustaining success: high performing government schools in London

Tony McAleavy, Alex Elwick and Alex Hall-Chen

London schools continue to constitute an extraordinary ‘success story’. By common consent, the government school system in London achieves extremely good results compared to the rest of England, and students from disadvantaged backgrounds do particularly well.

This was not always the case. As recently as 2001, the region of inner London achieved the worst results in England using national tests for 16 year-olds as the measure. By 2013 the picture had changed totally and students in inner London were doing better than students in all regions outside London.


In 2014 we sought to document and provisionally explain the London transformation. Since 2014 much has happened in England including some important changes to the way that school performance is measured. Here, we look at the performance of London schools using the new performance measures and ask the question: are London schools still doing well and outperforming the rest of England? The answer is an emphatic ‘Yes’.


In 2014 we attempted, in a highly tentative way, to explain the success of London’s schools using a mixed method approach. Using a review of the literature, data analysis and a qualitative enquiry into the perceptions of London stakeholders, we identified four promising developments that had taken place in London:


  • the London Challenge programme, which used high performing schools and their headteachers as a key resource for the improvement of other schools
  • the Teach First programme of graduate teacher recruitment which sought to recruit academically successful graduates to teach in disadvantaged London schools
  • the impact of the introduction of ‘academies’, a new form of government-funded school intended to transform schools with a long history of failure. This was a national initiative, but early academies were particularly prevalent in London
  • the enhancement of the school improvement function in some of the Local Authorities which operate at district level in London


The period of school reform initiatives in London ended after the financial crisis of 2008 and the general election of 2010. London Challenge ended in 2011. And yet, since then London has continued to maintain impressive outcomes. Our witnesses suggested that there was a degree of capacity and momentum within the school system in London that has maintained the improvement trajectory beyond the period of the initiatives. Key factors that support this momentum for continuous improvement included:


  • strong capacity in terms of teacher optimism and sense of collective efficacy
  • a good professional learning infrastructure
  • a mature mix of school-to-school competition and collaboration.