Why does London outperform England?

Improved Leadership and Teaching


οὐδὲν τοῖς θαρροῦσιν ἀνάλωτον

“There is nothing unattainable to him who will try.”

 Plutarch, Life of Alexander 58.2.3

“Turn him to any cause of policy,

The Gordian Knot of it he will unloose.

 William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 1 Scene 1. 45–47


According to Greek legend, in 333 BC, Alexander arrived in Gordia, where the mythical Gordian knot, so fiendishly tied as to defy unknotting, prophesised that the one who did would be King of Asia. When after much effort Alexander could not untie it, he simply sliced it with a single sword-stroke. Ever since, the Greeks call this the Alexandrian solution.

At the turn of the millennium, two vignettes painted a dismal portrait of London schools:


“Prison is bad. But this was worse. At least in prison there is a sense of order. Here, there was little order and not much evidence of control… It was a sad, depressing place… The stench of apathy hung over the entire building… The ‘inmates’ were all children who hadn’t done anything wrong – except to live in the wrong catchment area of London”.


“Deserted, dilapidated and vandalised… Concrete ruins were all that remained of Hackney Downs School, a graveyard of ‘the worst school in England’, closed five years before. In 2000, Hackney Downs had long been a by-word for disaster… The very name conjured images of a school out of control, no learning, mass truancy, children leaving with pitiful – if any – qualifications… A sink school, with virtually no children leaving with decent GCSEs… an extreme form of the malaise affecting inner-cities: low standards, poor leadership, and bleak, unsafe schools”.


For decades, London schools had some of the worst exam results in the country. Recently, though, education in London has been hailed as a triumph. In 2010, Ofsted said: ‘London’s secondary schools continue to perform better than those in the rest of England’. So I began asking: what changed?

Professor Rob Coe, Director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, was direct: ‘it could be a short blog: “we don’t know”.’ ‘But we can have so much fun guessing!’ was the response of the irrepressible Sam Freedman, Teach First’s Director of Research, Evaluation and Impact: ‘it’s probably the biggest challenge for education research right now’. Professor Simon Burgess at Bristol University concurred: ‘Understanding why attainment is so much higher in London is one of the biggest challenges for research in this field.’ ‘Sounds like ideal territory for opposing claims on the reasons for success,’ was the characteristically incisive insight from Tom Bennett. The Centre for London is now working with LKMco to analyse London school performance, asking: what went right? Before they publish, here’s my attempt to untangle the knotty issue of London’s educational achievement.

gordian knot


London outperforms nationally…

It is now beyond doubt that London outperforms England in educational achievement. GCSE results are better in London than in any other UK region, and improving faster: 62 per cent of state-school educated children achieving 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and Maths, compared with 58 per cent in the rest of the UK. London schools have also received higher inspection grades from Ofsted: 75 per cent are judged to be good or outstanding, compared with 69 per cent of schools in England; 27 per cent of London schools are rated as outstanding compared with 20 per cent of schools nationally. Children from poor backgrounds also do better in London than any other part of the country: the GCSE attainment gap between pupils on free school meals and their wealthier peers is much narrower in London (19 percentage points) than across England (27 percentage points). Only four schools in inner-city London (1%) are now below the government’s floor target. BBC Newsnight even ran a story in February 2013 asking: ‘How can schools nationwide mimic London’s improvement?’ Today, London is one of the few capitals in the world where educational results are better than the national average.


Chris Cook, the Financial Times’ former education correspondent, has done much to analyse the data (see this video from 4 minutes 50). Analysis of 10 years of state school exam results has revealed the extent of the London advantage: 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. London has raised the bar in achieving higher overall grades, and closed the gap between rich and poor.


… but still has its problems.

However, London is not without its educational challenges. In 2012, 15,000 children left primary school still struggling with basic literacy and numeracy, and 28,000 left without 5 good GCSEs. Of the 17,000 disadvantaged GCSE pupils in London, 47% achieved 5 A*-C with English and Maths, as opposed to 63% of all pupils in London state schools – that’s still a large gap. The Sutton Trust has shown that inequality persists: state school pupils in Hammersmith and Fulham are fifty times more likely to be accepted at Oxford or Cambridge than state school pupils in Hackney. The number of children in the capital leaving education NEET (without further education, employment or training) remains stubbornly high: 13.9% of 16-24 year olds (though nationally it is 16%). As the Mayor’s inquiry concluded, ‘If London schools had a report card, it might read, “Heading in the right direction, but not good enough”.


Nevertheless, if replicated round the country, London’s results would improve England’s education. Why is education in London improving, and what lessons can we learn about how to drive school improvement?


What changed?

The reasons for London’s success are hotly contested. Michael Gove listed the deployment of sponsored academies as one reason, and pointed out that half of all London secondary schools are now academies. The National Union of Teachers disputes this, as does the Local Schools Network. Chris Cook has drilled into the data, and says that although the best academies are in London, and they are ‘certainly part of the story’, they ‘don’t explain the difference’. Nor is London’s ethnic minority boost the whole gap, as there’s a strong London effect for white pupils, and the underperformance of schools outside of London ‘weighs disproportionately on white pupils’.

When asked by BBC Newsnight to comment, Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Mossbourne Academy which replaced Hackney Downs, said: ‘what makes the difference is the culture of the school, the expectation levels of the school, and that is determined by leadership. Limited ambitions don’t work – schools can make the difference.’ Sir Michael would know. His former school, with 40% of its pupils on free school meals (three times the national average), now gets 89% of its pupils 5 A*-C in GCSE, putting it in the top 1% of similar schools nationally. His answer struck me as cutting the Gordian knot of why London schools have improved so much.

Three reports investigating the issue corroborate his instinct: an Ofsted evaluation of London Challenge in 2010, an Institute of Education evaluation of City Challenge in 2011, and the Mayor of London’s Education Inquiry in 2012. They establish the main reasons London’s educational attainment is accelerating: it has improved its school partnerships, leadership and teaching.


1. Partnership


The objectives of London Challenge, which ran from 2003, were threefold: to reduce underperforming schools, increase outstanding schools and improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged children. Its activities were ‘characterised by the belief that school-to-school collaboration has a central role to play in school improvement’ (IoE 4).

The Institute of Education evaluation, with 221 school surveys, 69 stakeholders interviews, 34 headteacher interviews and 21 in-depth school case studies, asked to what extent London Challenge was responsible for any improvements in London Schools. Overall, the IoE reported that the objectives had been achieved. Of headteachers surveyed, 68% agreed with the statement, ‘London Challenge enabled this school to improve more rapidly than would otherwise be the case’ (35). The most plausible explanation for improvement in the city’s schools, the IoE concluded, was the Challenge program (98).

Partnerships – schools working with other schools with similar intakes – partly explains the success of London Challenge. Among headteachers interviewed, 72% agreed that ‘working with other schools has been a very effective strategy to bring about improvement in this school’ (36). Indeed, ‘good and outstanding schools benefited from helping weaker schools’ (104); ‘all schools can improve through school-to-school working and sharing practice: such strategies are not just for the weakest schools’ (106). The greatest success seemed to come from two or three schools working together.

Ofsted’s 2010 report also attributed the success of London schools to London Challenge and its partnership model: ‘pan-London networks of schools allow effective partnerships to be established between schools, enabling needs to be tackled quickly and progress to be accelerated’ (1). Ofsted reported that ‘participants and providers were unanimous in their appreciation of the positive impact that this approach was having on raising standards in both the host and participant schools’ (5). In short, Ofsted concluded that ‘collaboration is a key driver for improvement’. They recommended the DfE should ‘apply the lessons gained from London Challenge in driving school improvement across other regions, noting in particular the success of partnerships between schools’ (7).


2. Leadership


Ofsted reported ‘system leadership’ as a principal reason for success. Networks of experienced school leaders and current headteachers as credible advisers form a pool of ‘system leaders’ (5). A key strength of these leaders is their skill in matching people and schools, creating a sense of mutual trust. The leaders of the schools that contributed to the survey stated positively that the support is implemented with them and not imposed on them. The cadre of headteachers that provides the leadership and teacher training contributes greatly. An important consequence of the London Challenge initiative is that supported schools become influenced by the rigour and high expectations of the colleagues who are providing the support (13).

The IOE agrees: ‘survey and interview responses suggested that there has been a considerable change in the ethos of many London secondary schools’ (98). The focus was strongly on motivating and inspiring school leaders, and sharing outstanding practice through knowledge hubs in schools that could be visited and learned from. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and interviewees reported a ‘direct impact on practice in their own schools and the quality of education they were providing for pupils’ (107). They recommend that ‘clear and effective group leadership is needed to drive the agenda’, and ‘weak leaders can be supported through coaching, mentoring, development opportunities and a structured process’.  Common areas of focus across City Challenge, which rolled out in two other regions from 2008, were improving leadership and improving teaching.


3. Teaching


‘Improved teaching quality should be seen as an outcome of London Challenge’ argues the IoE evaluation (37). In their survey, 66% of headteachers agreed that ‘it had brought about an improvement in the quality of teaching’, and less than 10% disagreed. The most effective strategies to improve teaching and learning, recommended the IoE report, take place in schools, and involve observing excellent teaching; opportunities to reflect with colleagues; and coaching in the teacher’s own classroom.

‘Improving the quality of teaching and learning’ was the top driver behind school improvement identified by Ofsted (14). London Challenge brokered professional development programmes, which Ofsted called the ‘engine room of school improvement’:

‘Teachers on these programmes universally welcomed their impact on the quality of their teaching. School managers could point to measurable improvements in the quality of the teaching, with consequent improvements in outcomes for pupils. Providers also noted that the quality of their own teaching had improved further. This was the primary reason why teaching schools wanted to continue with this work: they recognised that their own staff and pupils benefited’ (15).


CPD on London Challenge used a ‘coaching triads’ model, in which the lead teacher works with two colleagues to demonstrate an element of teaching while being observed and then observes her or his colleagues ‘having a go’ themselves. Working with teachers from other schools with similar challenges, outside the confines of their home school, enabled frank discussions of strengths and weaknesses in their own teaching, free from concerns about performance management or the disapproval of peers.


Lessons Learned

One of the most heartening aspects of all this is that lessons are being learnt and built upon. The Major’s Inquiry into Education applied the key drivers of partnership, leadership and teaching quality to launch a London Schools Excellence Fund of £24 million for partnerships to improve the quality of subject teaching. The deadline for up to £75,000 grants is in June 2013, and £500,000 grants are also being awarded. The Chair of the inquiry, Tony Sewell, recognised that ‘in London we have many examples of schools which secure high achievement for traditionally under-achieving groups. If they can do it, so can other schools’ (6). The Inquiry recognises the challenges – for instance that 90,000 more London school places need to be found by 2016 – and explores what more can be done to encourage state schools to seize the opportunity to work with partners.

A relentless focus on improving the quality of leadership and teaching through partnerships: that is the deceptively simple lesson of London’s school improvement. If it feels a bit like slicing the Gordian knot, cutting through complexity around ethnicity, funding and academisation, that may be no bad thing. After all, leadership, teaching and partnerships are right at the centre of any school’s sphere of influence. The two vignettes from 2001 that I started with were written by Brett Wigdortz and Andrew Adonis. A decade on, and Teach First is applying this lesson: ‘that study after study, expert after expert, common sense observation after common observation, all show the same thing. An excellent education is the result of teachers who demonstrate classroom leadership, enabled by effective school and wider societal leadership. (22)’ Adonis makes the same case: ‘we need far more brilliant teachers, brilliantly led. (227)’ And it is for this reason that I’m so optimistic about the future of education, in London and in England. I see brilliant school leaders in the vanguard, headteachers like Max Haimendorf at King Soloman Academy and Ed Vainker at Reach Academy Feltham. In some of the country’s most deprived areas, the brilliant leadership of hundreds of others like them inspires a great deal of optimism. Almost 2,400 years on, the Alexandrian solution of cutting through complexity with a simple solution – improving leadership and teaching – might disentangle us from the knots of over-complicated policy debates we seem to be entwined in.


About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Why does London outperform England?

  1. Janet Downs says:

    You’re correct about the quality of teaching. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD regularly highlights this and he stresses the importance of allowing teachers professional autonomy. He also views collaboration as one of the factors in a successful education system. OECD research identifued factors of high-performing school systems (see link below):


    Changing the structure of schools was not a factor on the OECD list. And English schools already had a high degree of autonomy – the Academies Commission confirmed that non-academy schools could do most of the things that academies can do. Innovation, the Commission found, was discouraged by league tables not a lack of academy status.

    For more info on Academy Commission findings, see faq re Academies Commission on the Local Schools Network website

  2. Janet Downs says:

    A couple of quibbles about the article. Mossbourne did not replace Hackney Downs which was closed several years before Mossbourne was built (which your Adonis vignette made clear). However, the vignette made it appear that Hackney Downs was typical of London schools which it was not. Nevertheless, it was true that London schools didn’t perform as well as those outside the capital. This, as you say, was turned round because of the London Challenge.

    Re “five good GCSEs”. When GCSEs were first introduced, a C grade was supposed to be a sign of above-average attainment. 25 years later it’s been demoted to the grade which all pupils are supposed to attain. The National Statistics Office says Grade G is the minimum required to gain many jobs in the service sector and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills sets the threshold of functional literacy at GCSE Grade G. And the DfE said the expected level of progress of a previously-low attaining pupil was GCSE Grade D. So even the DfE recognises that not all pupils will achieve a C.

    And pupils who leave primary school with Level 3 are not necessarily “struggling to read and write”. They are literate enough to be able to cope with reading a tabloid newspaper, for example.

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