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London’s schools: awkward facts for both left and right

Last Friday I attended and seminar for school headteachers and chairs of governors addressed by Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, the body that inspects English schools. It was convened by the London Borough of Lambeth, for whom I am a primary school chair of governors, and where Sir Michael himself spent much of his school career (at least that is what he implied – though the secondary school he described sounded as if it was just over the border in Wandsworth, and very near where I live). He used the occasion to heap praise on the acheivements of Lambeth’s schools, and schools elsewhere in London too. He made his point by drawing a comparison to England’s second city, Birmingham, whose results, he implied, were mediocre. The progress that London’s state schools have made in the last decade is one of the most important facts about public services in Britain. But it is little talked about because it poses awkward questions for both left and right.

First the facts. My main source is a pamphlet produced by CentreForum in late 2011. The data may therefore be a little old, but the story hasn’t changed in the period since. London’s state school results, at both primary and secondary levels, are close to the English average. But the proportion of pupils attending school from the lowest income groups is much higher than in any other English region. About 70% (I’m a bit vague because I’m having to read off a graph without the exact numbers being in the text) of its pupils are in the lowest two income quintiles, compared to under 50% for most other regions (a bit over 50% for the North East). A lot of higher income parents send their children to private schools, especially in London, and this no doubt accounts for a lot of the skew to lower income levels. So London’s schools are achieving these results in spite of much higher levels of deprivation. The more you dig into the data, the more impressive this achievement looks. But London’s schools used to be awful.

When I have mentioned this achievement in various policy forums I get some rather strange reactions. People quickly dive in with data-less explanations which leave their basic world view intact. One economic liberal type started to lecture me on how much more aspirational London parents were. A more left-leaning type (with direct experience of London schools) attributed it to an influx of African immigrants displacing poorer performing white and Afro-Caribbean ethnic groups. Others have complained about preferential funding for London’s schools. But the data shows that, let us say, none of these explanations is anything like sufficient. But they did educate me in how selective many policy commentators are in their insistence on the use of proper evidence.

How have these results been attained? This is a lot less clear. No doubt the capital does have some inherent advantages in aspirational families and a better pool of potential teachers – which had not previously been exploited. But the main explanation seems to be strong political leadership. The boroughs led the way, but central government (under Labour) was bearing down on them, with initiatives such as the London Challenge (started in 2003, focusing on secondary schools). For Sir Michael, who was very much in the middle of it, the main point was that heads and governors were made more accountable for their results. Failure to achieve good results resulted in schools being hauled over the coals. The “Satisfactory” rating for an Ofsted inspection was in fact regarded as “Unsatisfactory”; Sir Michael has since changed that nomenclature. I have certainly seen how school leadership teams have focused more clearly on how to reach out to families from poorer backgrounds, with extended school facilities (handy for working parents) and family learning, as well as individually tailored interventions.

Why is this so awkward for mainstream politicos? The left, drawing support from the trade union movement, do not want to put schools and their staff under too much pressure. They would rather promote the fiction that England’s schools are generally good, but that they cannot overcome the social issues created by poverty – which need to be tackled through anti-poverty measures. And yet it seems that if you chivvy (and even bully) schools hard enough you can dramatically improve the results of pupils even from very challenging backgrounds. There is a very uncomfortable paradox here: leftist political activists get very worked up about deprivation, but this translates into low expectations of what deprived families can achieve, which in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Things are just as bad on the right. They say that the problem is that parents lack choice, and that the state runs schools badly. So the focus is to reduce state control by converting schools to semi-independent Academies, and letting interest groups set up brand new schools. Choice and competition will drive up standards. And yet the London results show that this is at best irrelevant. The results have been achieved with existing political structures.

If London’s schools show anything, it is the effectiveness of the last Labour government’s methods – Tony Blair’s Third Way. And yet this has become deeply unfashionable in political circles. In fact there was plenty wrong in Labour’s education policies, including a very wasteful school building programme, which converted necessary school upgrades into prestige architectural projects. But the basic idea was sound: good old fashioned political leadership and accountability can transform public services – provided you are prepared to take on the vested interests of those working within it.

Or to put it another way, and to bring it into one of the main themes of this blog: effective commissioning is the secret to better public services, both at the level of whole communities and at the level of individual users. London got a lot better at both.

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