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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Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.