One of the greatest educational success stories of the past 25 years is surely the transformation in pupil attainment in Britain's largest cities Birmingham and London. Both proved it is possible to crack the cycle of deprivation born out of a mix of poverty and associated urban challenge. The statistics are hard to ignore.
Then, only 9 per cent of these city school leavers gained five or more GCSEs (A-C) or equivalent, against a national average of 30 per cent. This summer, around 59 per cent achieved the same and significantly above the national average. Moreover, one in three of London's secondary schools achieved at least 70 per cent, with fewer proportionately than elsewhere at the bottom of the league tables. Examine value-added gains and it's the same story for primary schools. If you are poor, you'll do better in London schools than anywhere else in the UK.
Unless you are in the cynical "lies, damned lies and statistics" camp, you have to ask why. First, there are more outstanding teachers in London's schools than there used to be. Consequently, youngsters are gaining skills they thought beyond them, which bolsters their fragile self-confidence: they know their teachers believe in them.
Second, more urban schools are well led by headteachers who "know" that all the youngsters can and will succeed. They share ever more knowledge about the subtleties of school improvement.
Other reasons for the urban transformation lie partly outside the school. First, there is the question of teacher supply, development and retention. Here, support to offset high housing costs in London have complemented the boost in high-quality new recruits and the pioneering Teach First programme, which sets out to attract good honours graduates for two years before they go into industry. Unexpectedly, more than half the annual intake of 170-plus recruits decided to stay on in teaching. The Chartered London Teacher scheme, designed to establish the habit of continuous professional development, has attracted almost 40,000 enrolments.
The London Challenge the government-funded initiative to promote these changes has shown how we can learn from the wisdom and experience of the best school improvers and help individual schools struggling against the odds to establish a strong achievement culture. It has also made better use of data, publishing Families of Schools, a data set which organises schools into groups according to pupils' prior attainment and similar socio-economic background. Schools are then grouped by their comparative rate of improvement, absolute scores overall and their scores in each subject. This allows any of the 415 London secondary schools to visit others to learn more about teaching, courses and school organisation.
Two final points about the transformation in London and Birmingham relate to money and the school "climate". First, extra money through Excellence in Cities and the London Challenge was crucial. Second, staff in successful schools know they are part of a great enterprise with a moral purpose. Their efforts are appreciated and widely acknowledged.
What of the future? The Olympics will provide new incentives for London. Elsewhere, the Black Country and Greater Manchester city challenges offer the opportunity to promote a similar collective commitment to crack the cycle of disadvantage.
Tim Brighouse is commissioner for London schools
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