is why the outcomes for London schools have been improving so much
faster than in the rest of the country. I wrote about it here
last year. Until now there's been little in the way of research into
the question but last week two reports came out - one by the IFS and one
from CFBT - that seek to provide some answers.
They both agree that the change in GCSE results has been spectacular.
There's plenty of data in both reports on this but I found this graph
from the IFS particularly powerful because it relates to a metric that
isn't something schools are held accountable to - and so feels like
authentic proof that something extraordinary has happened in London.
But what, exactly, has happened? Here the two reports seem to disagree. According to the IFS - whose analysis is purely quantitative the main reasons are:
- Changes in pupil and school characteristics - in particular London
and other inner-city areas have seen an increase in pupils from a range
of ethnic backgrounds (partly) as a result of immigration. The IFS
analysis suggests this accounts for about half the improvement in London
- Changes in "prior attainment" - the authors argue that once higher
levels of attainment in key stage 2 (end of primary) tests are taken
into account then the "London effect" in secondaries looks less
impressive. Indeed once prior attainment and changes in pupil/school
characteristics have been controlled for the gap between London and the
rest of the country falls from 21 percentage points in the 5 A*-C GCSE
with English and Maths measure to just 5 percentage points. Moreover
this gap is fairly stable between 2002-2012 - though it does increase a
by about 2 percentage points over the period.
- There was a big increase in key stage 2 schools for disadvantaged
pupils between 1999-2003 and that led to big increases in GCSE scores
for these pupils between 2004-08 - but the GCSE improvement was actually
the result of prior attainment. The authors hypothesise this may be due
to the introduction of "national strategies" in primary literacy and
numeracy in the late 90s - these were piloted in inner London
authorities (as well as some other urban areas e.g. Liverpool).
- London secondaries do have a better record at getting disadvantaged
pupils to stay in education post-16. After controlling for pupil/school
characteristics they are around 10 percentage points more likely to stay
The CFBT report
does include quantitative analysis but is much more focus on
qualitative research - specifically interviews with headteachers,
academics, civil servants and other experts. This report argues the key
reasons for London's improvement are:
- Four key "improvement interventions" between 2002 and 2014 - the
"London Challenge" (a Labour initiative that used data to
focus attention on weaker schools and used better schools to support
their improvement); Teach First; the introduction of sponsored
academies; and improvements driven by local authorities.
- They conclude that: "each of
these interventions played a significant role in driving improvement.
Evaluations of each of these interventions have overall been positive,
although the absence of RCT evidence makes it impossible to identify the
precise gains from each set of activities. The exact causal mix also
varied from borough to borough because there were variations in the
level of involvement in London Challenge, variations in the
effectiveness of local authority activity, variations in the level of
‘academisation’ and variations in the level of input from Teach First."
- The authors argue that there were cross-cutting themes covering
these interventions and the wider improvement story. In particular - the
better use of data; practitioner-led professional development and,
particularly, leadership - both politically and at school level.
At first glance it's hard to reconcile the positions taken in the two
reports. The IFS focus on primary, and to a lesser extent pupil
characteristics, while CFBT focus on secondary policy changes. I think,
though, they are two different bits of an extremely complicated jigsaw
that hasn't been finished yet - and because of the lack of evidence/data
- never will be. Like the apocryphal blind men with the elephant
they're looking at different parts of the whole.
1) Both reports probably underestimate the importance of changes in
pupil characteristics. CFBT completely dismiss this as a driver based on
an inadequate analysis of ethnicity data. The IFS analysis is more
comprehensive and so does pick up a significant effect but may still
miss the true extent because of the limitations of available data on
ethnicity. I think this may explain the extent of the "primary effect"
in the IFS report. Essentially they're saying the big improvements in
GCSE results are partially illusory because they were already built
into those pupils' primary attainment. However, they are unable (because
of a lack of data) to analyse whether those primary results were also partly illusory because those pupils started primary at a higher level.
There is a clue that this may be a factor in their analysis of Key Stage
1 data for more recent years. Controlling for prior attainment at KS1
reduces the "London effect" at Key Stage 2 by about half. But the
authors are unable to do this analysis for the crucial 1999-2003 period
when results really improved. They are also unable to look from the
beginning of primary - because we don't have baseline assessments when
pupils start school.
2) The IFS report probably underestimates the secondary effect. As Chris Cook has shown the London secondary effect at least doubles if you exclude equivalents.
3) The CFBT report definitely underestimates the primary effect because
it doesn't look for it. Thought there are some quotes from people who
worked in local authorities during the crucial period who highlight
their focus on literacy and numeracy during the late 90s.
So pupil characteristics; primary schools and secondary schools all seem
to have played a role in boosting attainment in London. The CFBT report
is convincing on some of the factors at play in secondaries; the IFS
report is convincing that primaries also played some kind of a role. The
big questions for me after digesting both reports:
- Are there "London specific" pupil characteristics that wouldn't be
apparent from the available data. E.g. are immigrants who go to London
different to those who don't? Are some of the ethnicity effects stronger
than indentified because key groups (e.g. Polish) are hidden in larger
- Are there policy reasons why London primaries improved faster than
those elsewhere in the crucial 1999-2003 period? I struggle to buy the
idea that the national strategies were the key driver here as they were
rolled out nationally (albeit that the pilots were focused on inner
London). But the quotes in the CFBT report suggest their might be
something here around a general focus on literacy/numeracy. This is a
key area for further research.
- To what extent were the policy interventions (London Challenge,
academies etc...) the main reasons for secondary improvement? Or was it
more to do with the number of good school leaders during that period?
One of the most interesting tables in the CFBT report - pasted below -
shows that inner London is the only part of the country where
headteacher recruitment has got easier in the last ten year. And the
importance of leadership shines through in the interviews conducted for
the CFBT report. Is it possible to more closely identify the
relationship between individual leaders and school improvement? What can
we learn from these leaders?
And of course the really big question - is any of this replicable in
other areas? We're starting to see a raft of local improvement
initiatives across the country - Wales Challenge; Somerset Challenge;
North East Challenge and so on. It's really important that in these
areas we do a better job of evaluating all the interventions put in
place from the start so that if we see big improvements we have a better
understand of the causes.