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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The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.