London’s outperformance of the rest of England surprises many. It’s down to an effort to help teachers improve their practice
For many years, London schools – and particularly its secondary schools – have had an unwelcome reputation. In the 1980s and 1990s it was common for parents in London to send their children to state primary schools, which were generally perceived as good, but then to opt for private schools if they could afford it, or to move out to the suburbs or further if they could not, once their children approached secondary school age. There were undoubtedly serious problems in many London secondary schools, but even 30 years ago, London’s schools were actually pretty effective – and its secondary schools were actually more effective than its primary schools in terms of academic progress made by students.
This comes as a surprise to many people – so much so that some people frankly refuse to believe it – because they assume that schools that get good results must be good schools. However, data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that one cannot judge the quality of a school by its results in any OECD country. In most countries, the school a child attends accounts for less than 10% of the variation in the results he or she gets. The remaining differences in results are caused by differences in the students, their backgrounds, and a number of other factors over which the school has no control. In fact the same OECD data shows that the average achievement in private schools in the UK is the same as that in state schools, once social class is taken into account, even though the average class size is 13 in the private sector and 25 in the state sector.
Most people grasp this intuitively with hospitals. Few would be surprised to learn that the mortality rate at Great Ormond Street hospital for children was higher than for ordinary hospitals, because people realise the hospital takes many children that other hospitals cannot help. Low mortality rates might indicate a good hospital but could equally well be a sign that the hospital admitted only people who weren’t very ill. For this reason, the NHS compares hospitals not in terms of mortality rates, but in terms of risk-adjusted mortality rates, that take into account how ill the patients at each hospital were.
When we do the same for secondary schools – when we compare schools in terms of how much students learn – we find that schools in London have been rather good for a considerable time. Ten years ago, only one secondary school in six across the country was as good as the average secondary school in Tower Hamlets in terms of the progress made by students.
However, in the last three years, something even more extraordinary has happened. London schools have been outperforming schools in the rest of the country not just in terms of the progress made by students, but also in GCSE grades. Two years ago, London became the only rich world capital city in which student achievement was higher than the national average, and last year – as reported in the Financial Times on Monday – London schools outperformed those in all the other English regions.
As the Chinese say, “Success has a thousand fathers”, and a number of people have queued up to claim that their pet initiative was the cause of this extraordinary achievement. Some have claimed that the improvement is due to the conversion of secondary schools into academies, but the truth is that the GCSE grades of academies have been no better than equally low-performing schools that were not converted into academies. Others have claimed that schemes to increase the quality of entrants into teaching such as “Teach First” are the reason, but there is no evidence that Teach First teachers are any better (or any worse) than those trained through traditional university-based teacher training programmes. Moreover, since Teach First teachers made up less than 5% of the teaching force in London schools during this period, even if they were as good as the very best teachers (which is highly unlikely), their impact could not have produced the improvements seen in London.
The truth is much more prosaic. London’s success has been the result of focusing on the boring, unspectacular task of helping teachers improve their practice. London Challenge supported London’s schools but also, through the “Families of schools” reports asked tough questions about why similar students in different schools got very different results.
We now know that the quality of teachers is the single most important determinant of how much students learn. This has led some to obsess about replacing existing teachers with better ones, either by sacking the least effective, or improving the quality of new entrants to the profession. The lesson from London’s success is that by themselves such measures are the policy equivalent of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Improvements in student achievement will come from investing in the teachers already in our schools, and helping them do an even better job.
Other posts from this source: Dylan Wiliam