GRRR BABY! Why London's schools are swinging harder than ever

28th June 2014 at 17:41



'London's brilliant when it's raining,' sang instantly forgettable 80s pop-burp Transvision Vamp. Ironically they were rubbish, but perhaps they had magical foreknowledge of two reports published this week, both sifting through the entrails of the UK capital's striking comparative success in examinations. London's schools, it appears, may very well be brilliant. But why?


London has defied national trends, exposed its buttocks and slapped them with abandon in the face of national grade determinism. Between 2003 and 2011 London moved from being the lowest performer of England's nine regions, to being the best. There is a far lower correlation between pupil deprivation and low GCSE results than any other region. Nearly a quarter of London pupils quality for Free School Meals, but London students stil achieved a 2.7% increase in those achieving 5 A*-Cs. Chris Husbands of the Institute of Education (London)  says that this makes it the 'international educational success story of the past ten years'. 


The most interesting report, Lessons from London Schools: investigating the success, will burn a hole in the heart of anyone who resents the metro-centric disposition of British culture, focussing tightly on the Thames Valley. Maybe twenty years ago, a sensible teacher would have booked the first sedan out of King's Cross and taken quarters anywhere else but the dirty fist of the capital's comprehensives. But let me take you by the hand; this report has shown us something that'll make us change our mind. Where did it all go right? It identifies four threads:


1. Teach First.


You can hear teeth grinding themselves down to bloody stumps from the opponents of this program, and thunderclaps from the Teach First press office as they chest-bump and high-five each other into a jam of happy. Years ago, I was suspicious of this audacious scheme to lure top-quality graduates into the Great Game, with the cheese of rescuing lost children from aspirational poverty. My concern was that teaching took a lot more than a first. Which is still true, but empirical evidence beat my cynicism; every time I met a Teach First teacher they were disappointingly, really good. Eventually I had to concede defeat and embrace the Beast. I never met one who exemplified the stereotype of the ladder-climbing plutocrat. I did meet a lot of talented young acolytes, fizzing with ambition and altruism. I can even forgive them the secret handshakes, the blood sacrifice, the fresh piles of earth in the graveyards. 


2. The London Challenge.


This project, which sought to join up schools and promote cluster initiatives of collaboration, was exceptional in that it was both successful and popular. Headed by the avuncular and omni-popular Tim Brighouse (who has become a sort of Nelson Mandala figure in education, cuddled equally by Tory and Trot), could it be said to depend on that sort of catalytic personality? More research needed, as they say. And, while popular, was it really a success? Was it catalytic, causal, correlative? Sam Freedman, Research Director for Teach First notes that 'hard, statistical evidence' is still needed to substantiate this claim. And of course, like most popular, apparently successful programs, it was immediately binned by the new incumbents.


3. The academies program.


If teeth were ground at (1), above, mandibles will scrape like mortars and pestles by now. Accountability, professionalism, and a focus on data and data literacy became key factors of academies, particularly the bigger chains which invested in London. While there is much- rightly- to challenge about the impact that Big Data has on education as a practice, it is undeniable that it has created a culture of scrutiny and justification. It is impossible to drift along with abysmal figures, before some Jasper with a clipboard and a hard-on leans on your door knocker.


4. LEA support.


Just in case you thought that this was going to be a love letter to devolved autonomy and elitism, a reminder that, when LEAs worked, they worked. Increased funding and a focus on key programs meant that LEAs were well-placed to coordinate resources and support between schools, such as the Gifted and Talented program. 


Debate will continue about whether these factors were necessary, or sufficient conditions for the educational reboot experienced in London (perhaps they should just turn it off at the mains, wait a bit, turn it back on). Are there any other factors that might have enabled its efficacy? Chris Cook has written eloquently on how other reports, such as The Institute for Fiscal Studies' may point to primary school improvements, but once GCSE equivalents are factored out, suddenly it looks like more of a secondary success story.


The CfBT report focuses on policy interventions and concludes that yes, they can be effective. Some could point to more social factors in the equation, bubbling beneath the superstructure of governance: the wild economic disparity between London and the large landmass that surrounds it; the great foaming ocean of internationality and aspiration that London embodies in ways that, e.g. Thurso doesn't.


Edu-tourists have been commuting between Finland and everywhere for years, deperate to bring back some magic beans.But what if we have Finland, right here in the UK. Without the liquorice, optimism and Moomins, obviously. If so, it's understandable that other Titan capitals like New York and Paris might start booking rooms in Hackney on their grand tours. 


What about the future? Two things seem obvious- the need to consolidate and maintain the gains made in London, and the greater need to see if any of them are replicable outside of birthplace of Bruce Forsythe and Kenneth Williams. Maybe we should just send all the kids in the UK to London.


It might be that some critical factors might be missing elsewhere- Freedman points out that gentrification and aspiration might be keys missing elsewhere.  Chris Cook plausibly argues that, because London graduates tend to also marry graduates, their partner's job opportunities are critical in where they can settle and work as a couple. Which spells trouble for economically deprived areas of England unless Teach First can somehow arrange a dating program, or include a marriage partner as part of the five year package. Men and women of the North, do your duty. Perhaps it can become a form of national service. 


Could the London Challenge happen again? Was it a happy confluence of circumstances? Was it the brainchild of a uniquely talented individual? Are there resources to support this kind of joined-up policy elsewhere beyond King's Landing? Can we afford it?


Can we afford not to try? Because one thing rings clear from this report: social and cultural determinism is not destiny. Children are not, have never been, statistical points on a scatter graph; they are not quantum fields of probability. They are vehicles of possibility. London's success might prove different things to different ideologies, but it shows at least one thing: the possibility of change.