London is seen as the great success story of the English school system.
When I meet with international visitors, it’s always one of their first questions – how did London improve so much? We are, after all, very unusual, in Europe at least, in having a capital that outperforms the rest of the country educationally.
And London really has been on an impressive trajectory. For example, twenty years ago, children on free school meals (FSM) in London performed at around the same level as the rest of the country at GCSE; now they do around 20 percentage points better.
The reasons for this are much debated and will never be established beyond doubt.
The best guess is that it’s a mix of demographic change, that has been seen to increase in highly aspirational immigrant families, and policy initiatives, like the London Challenge and Teach First.
And these two things are interconnected. London Challenge was, in part, about using schools to drive the integration of burgeoning minority communities.
The narrative of London’s success, though, can obscure the challenges it still faces – as set out in a new report from Reconnect London, a group founded by London schools during the pandemic.
For a start, while children on FSM do, on average, a lot better in London, those who are persistently disadvantaged do not.
Moreover, there is substantial poverty. Inner London boroughs like Hackney and Tower Hamlets have levels of deprivation in line with so-called “left behind” northern towns, such as Rochdale and Hartlepool.
What’s more, the government’s arbitrary cap on welfare, and decision not to fund benefits for more than two children, bites much harder in London where housing costs are sky high. This is even more true now, with inflation rising so quickly.
In addition, the success of London pupils from lower-income families at GCSE does not automatically translate into better life chances. London has one of the lower regional acceptance rates to Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, and only 17 per cent of London’s professional jobs are occupied by people from lower-income backgrounds, compared to 30 per cent nationally.
Those higher GCSE results are not yet translating into social mobility, albeit it will take time for the full effects of educational improvement to flow through to the labor market.
Ignoring the capital
Over the past decade, government policy has become increasingly focused on underperforming regions.
London has been systematically cut out of multiple interventions and funding streams such as “opportunity areas” and the new “education investments areas” announced in the Leveling Up White Paper.
Government-funded programs like Teach First have been encouraged to shift their resources and attention outside of the capital as much as possible.
Furthermore, funding for schools in London has fallen significantly more than in other areas, due to a reduction in the relative amounts going to disadvantage, and is well below where it was in 2010.
There seems to be a mistaken assumption – consistent with some of the wider narratives around “levelling up” – that London is “solved”.
But this attitude fails to acknowledge the challenges the capital still has and risks reversing the progress made in previous years.
Many from the generation of leaders who came through London Challenge have retired, or are nearing retirement age, and none of the programs that supported them are anymore in place.
Reconnect London was set up by leaders from this generation to support those coming through now and is the kind of initiative that should be encouraged.
Part of a wider problem
None of this is to say there aren’t real challenges in other parts of England. The problem of deindustrialisation in Northern and Midlands towns is real; as is the slow decline of coastal areas.
That doesn’t justify, though, ignoring London.
Instead, we should be continuing to support it as a center of excellence for young people, particularly those from lower-income backgrounds, and translating what we’ve learned to other areas in a more systematic way than has happened to date.
Every area has its own context, and there are reasons things that work in London don’t work elsewhere, but we could still do more to build connections. Especially in a world where academy trusts aren’t constrained by geography.
So we should celebrate London’s improvement but we should also see it as the foundation, not the endpoint.
Both for London itself – where they are still plenty of problems to solve – and for the rest of the country, where it could be used as an exemplar rather than dismissed as a different world.
Sam Freedman is a former senior policy adviser at the Department for Education and a senior fellow at the Institute of Government