Sustaining success: high performing government schools in London

Tony McAleavy
Alex Elwick

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, School improvement in London: a global perspectiveSince then, 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, our mixed method approach – using a review of the literature, data analysis and a qualitative enquiry into the perceptions of London stakeholders –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.

Our 2014 analysis also identified four themes that characterised the London discourse about school improvement during the years of apparent transformation:

  • the quality of leadership at all levels of the education system, especially school leadership
  • the power of data and data literacy as a means of challenging underperformance and identifying effective practice
  • the importance of high-impact professional development for teachers based on coaching relationships and classroom-based professional learning
  • sustained political support and consistent policies maintained over many years.
School classroom

In the summer of 2018, we talked to 11 expert witnesses with different perspectives about the London story. Their majority view was that there had indeed been a radical change in school quality in the first decade of the century and this had been sustained in the second decade of the century. The explanatory factors for London’s continuing success that they identified included: success in recruiting and retaining great teachers, highly effective school leadership and the impact of well-designed school improvement interventions.

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.

The stakeholders we interviewed also recognised that, in addition to the importance of specific government policies, student and parental aspirations and the distinctive ethnic make-up of the city of London has made a difference. There has been a debate in recent years about the impact of the aspirational culture of some ethnic groups in London. A possible new narrative emerged from our discussions. Students from a migrant background are often highly motivated but this is not enough. Aspirational students need to have their talents nurtured by skilful teachers in the context of schools that are both orderly and nurturing. Schools in London benefit from both some aspirational student attitudes but these have been skilfully harnessed by some highly effective schools.