Overview – The Guardian of February 23rd carried a major article on the Improvement in London Schools doubting the role of London Challenge. Drawing on the work of Simon Burgess at Bristol University, the paper suggested that it was high levels of immigration and the raising of aspirations which had been responsible. The article examines how valid this argument is. Author – Trevor Fisher.
Since the Black Papers of the 1970s, education debate has been dominated by the headline – State Schools Fail – in various guises. Yet on one key issue, London Schools, the question is now about success. No one disagrees that London schools have massively improved test and exam scores. But what caused the success after 2003, when the results were abysmal? Until recently the government programme called London Challenge was given the credit, even though Gove closed it in 2011 favouring other initiatives. Since then, other reasons have been given and in the Guardian of 23rd February an extensive airing was given to the idea that ethnic factors and ethnic diversity alone were responsible.
Questioning London Challenge has been ongoing for some time. Matthew Hancock on Question Time in February 2014 put the results down to Academies and the work of Andrew Adonis. Since then more heavyweight thinkers have produced three reports stressing either improvements in low achievers (Social Mobility Commission-Institute for Fiscal Studies), or a mix of initiatives including Teach First (CfBT and partners) or the ethnic factor, defined by Professor Simon Burgess at the Centre for Market and Public Organisation at Bristol University. This is now prominent after Trevor Philips, former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission raised it via the BBC.
The Burgess position is that as with the Tiger Mums syndrome, aspirational immigrants with a high work ethic force their children to work hard and achieve at school, and as London has more of these the immigrant performance raises achievement. To be fair he also argues that as London is more integrated than elsewhere, the classroom performance is raised more than in less diverse locations due to pupils learning from each other. However that factor did not make it to the Guardian article.
The Guardian reporter, Sally Weale, focussed on Glassmore Community School in Tottenham – presumably not an Academy – which had improved its results dramatically under a head, Tony Hartney, who had been there since 1999. He pointed out that the ethnic composition of the school had not changed while its results had been transformed, contradicting Burgess. The use of a single school allowed Burgess to say his analysis is based on averages and so some schools may be exceptional, which is a fair point. However the article quoted Kevan Collins, working in Tower Hamlets, who pointed out that Bengali kids in the borough do better than in Bradford, and that “Bradford’s performance has not been comparable to that of London”. Sadly a wider comparison between London and Manchester and especially Birmingham, the latter in particular having done well at GCSE, was not picked up by the Guardian. Moreover, A level results in London continue on a rising trend, which does not seem the case in the other two cities. Perhaps this is because of sixth form colleges in London, small sixth forms being bad for achievement. However post 16 performance is yet to be examined and much vital data remains unscrutinised.
For the immediate debate, it is clear that while Burgess has forced scrutiny of how ethnic groups perform, we have no clear grasp of either ethnicity – it is not easy to define – or whether the performance of recent arrivals is above or below long standing immigrants. Phillips himself argues the importance of assessing performance in different ethnic groups, and data has to be robust. If long established immigrant groups are now performing better than two or three decades ago, ethnicity alone could not be the reason.
More importantly, Burgess is taking for granted two key factors which critically affect performance, the existence of schools and their staffing. Shortage of school places is now developing, affecting performance, where this was not an issue policy makers had to consider a decade ago. Even more crucial, the staffing of schools which was a major problem in London in 2002 when London Challenge was devised has been resolved. A stable, confident and skilled teaching force is key to success, but in 2002 staffing in London was unstable and of unreliable quality. This was an issue that London Challenge explicitly addressed, and whose resolution must be one of the great achievements of urban education. We take it for granted at our peril.
Collegiality – developing links between and within schools – was also critically important, particularly for teachers in challenging areas. Learning from successful examples rather than innovating without proper support and assessment structures has to be more beneficial. Students don’t teach themselves, so any assessment of success must look at the work force. Is it accidental that the Guardian’s chosen school has a head who has been in post for sixteen years
There are no miracle solutions or silver bullets, and while academies were marginal to the improvement – only 30 in the first five years of London Challenge – Teach First and other initiatives may well have been significant. It is a sorry comment on the innovation work of the DfE that there is no serious evaluative body which could make comparisons. Burgess at the end of the Guardian article argues “We can make better public policy if it is based on evidence”, and this is true. But the evidence has to be more than statistical, particularly where ethnic stats are hard to define. It is unlikely that one programme transformed London Schools. But London Challenge, operating in the specific period after 2003 when improvements began to happen, and at pace, cannot be relegated to a back seat.
That London Challenge operated in the period 2003-11 when improvement took off and schools became attractive to staff and to parents is hardly accidental. This was the objective, the methods were well designed and allowed for bespoke solutions, and those involved, particularly in the schools, were positive about the experience. London Challenge remains the most plausible explanation for the clear improvements in London Schools since the second Blair government.
Trevor Fisher 25.3.15