London still has England’s best schools – but the gap is closing

Concentrate at the back there. Image: Getty.

About four years ago, journalists and educationalists began to notice something extraordinary: London's schools, long undistinguished, had shown gradual improvement and were now the highest performing in the country and their disadvantaged pupils were performing the best nationally.

The reasons behind the ‘London effect’ are complex, combining demographic trends, funding dynamics and policy interventions. In Lessons from London’s Schools, the Centre for London unpicked these and showed that additional funding, teacher recruitment and school building stock had all made a difference – and that long-term, coherent policy interventions (not linked to significant funding increases) and high-quality leadership provided the impetus for improvement. (See Baars, S. et al (2014) Lessons from London’s school: Investigating the success for details)

Other research highlighted the significant role of immigration, as high performing ethnic groups make up a relatively large fraction of London students.

Journalists often move on, once a story becomes familiar, but there are reasons to revisit this. As GCSE results updates were released recently budget cuts have been continuing and a new funding formula could put the capital’s schools at a disadvantage. So we ask again: how are London schools doing?

London vs the rest

London has kept its lead over the rest of the country – but the gap is closing. In 2016, 60.6 per cent of London pupils achieved 5+ A*-C grades at GCSE or equivalent, down from 60.9 per cent a year earlier. That means the difference between London and the rest of England is now 3.4 per cent, the smallest gap since 2009-10.

The changing subject eligibility rules, and resits ceasing to count, explain the fall in 2013-14.

‘Attainment 8’ is one of the new headline measures of school achievement, averaging results across eight subjects, including double weighted English and Maths. London averages an Attainment 8 score per pupil of 51.9 (up from 51.1 last year), while the rest of England averaged 49.8 (up from 48.2) – figures that once again demonstrate the narrowing gap between London and the rest.


‘Progress 8’, the other headline measure, looks at whether secondary school pupils progress more or less than expected. Of 3,036 schools assessed nationally, 282 schools (9.3 per cent) fell below a quality standard, reflecting poorer than expected progression. In London, just 13 schools (3.1 per cent) fell below this standard – the lowest regional proportion in the country. The capital also has the highest proportion of good/outstanding schools (93 per cent), as measured by Ofsted.

While these figures are impressive, and may partly reflect the growing middle-class population in Inner London as identified in Centre for London’s Inside Out, there is concern for older pupils. Further education results (e.g. A-levels) are worse than the national average, potentially having significant consequences for young people’s engagement with higher education and the labour market.

The differences between inner and outer London

Inner London schools have had, for many years, lower achievement than their outer London counterparts, partly reflecting socio-economic disadvantage and lower pupil mobility; but their results have been improving faster since 2000.

While the difference in GCSE results between outer (61.1 per cent) and inner (59.7 per cent) London persists, the gap continues to close, with the inner-outer differential now 1.4 per cent, from 5.6 per cent six years ago. Inner London schools are also closing the Attainment 8 gap on outer counterparts, while only three boroughs experienced year-on-year falls: Tower Hamlets, Croydon and Hounslow.

Gaps in the capital are still at large

In Lessons from London’s Schools, we highlighted that disadvantaged pupils tend to perform better in London than elsewhere, and this aids social mobility in the capital. This trend has continued into 2016; Attainment 8 results show pupils receiving free school meals scored better in London (44.8) than the rest of England (37.7).

Across all ethnicities, London performs better than the rest of England, but the gaps within the capital are still significant. Attainment 8 scores show achievement gaps between ethnic groups persisting – inequality remains a challenge.

Funding – where do we go from here?

For many years London’s schools have enjoyed high funding levels, but the introduction of the new National Funding Formula (NFF), intended to equalise per pupil funding nationally and ,due to be introduced in 2018-19, may mean many boroughs are set to lose out.  As shown below, the proposed transitional arrangement should lessen the potential impact, but the fall in funding will be significant, particularly in inner London.

While reduced funding for London’s schools could have a detrimental effect on pupil achievement, above-average spending is only a partial explanation for above-average achievement. But people are rightly concerned that London’s schools could be knocked back by changes to funding. How these changes play out will depend on how far budget reductions can be absorbed – without losing the quality of teaching.

Alongside continuing cuts and a high cost of living deterring the capital’s young teachers, the success of London’s schools, and all the benefits that accrue from this, may be in jeopardy.

Tom Colthorpe is a research intern at Centre for London. 

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To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.