Twelve years ago, London’s secondary schools were undeniably failing and, in an era when politicians had money to spend, the answer was political intervention – in the form of the London Challenge.
When it was officially launched at the Globe theatre in 2003 by then prime minister Tony Blair, the capital’s schools were among the worst in the country, with just 39% of pupils getting at least five good grades at GCSE (A*-C including English and maths).
Now, 61.5% is the comparable figure and London’s schools are the envy of the entire country – and beyond. The scale of the transformation is staggering, how it was achieved is less clear-cut.
On the face of it, the London Challenge is that rare thing, an education policy that has attained almost mythical status – because of its apparent success
Except, not everybody is quite so so certain. Trevor Phillips, former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, was addressing the same issue (in a different context) on Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday.
What if London’s educational success wasn’t as a result of policy, or bureaucratic change? What if it was simply an accident of demographics – the result of a sharp increase in the number of children from aspirational, ambitious ethnic groups attending London’s schools?
Phillips, speaking ahead of the screening of his C4 documentary Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True on Thursday, was drawing on research by Simon Burgess, an economics professor at Bristol University, published last year, which suggested that far from being the direct result of policy change, London’s success could be explained almost entirely by the ethnic mix in its schools.
“The big educational success story of the last 10 years has been London … London’s schools were at the bottom of the league tables. Today they are at the top,” Phillips told the BBC’s John Humphrys.
“Now there’s an argument going on about what that’s about. Is it about bureaucratic changes, is it policy? Or is it … that the high-performing ethnic groups, Chinese, Indian, African and Polish have exploded in numbers, whereas the poor performing groups, poor whites and African-Caribbeans, have gone down in numbers that accounts for the change?”
Gladesmore Community School in Tottenham is one of those schools that seems to have followed the classic London Challenge trajectory. In the 70s, 80s and 90s it was one of the most unpopular schools in north London with among the lowest results in the country. Just 4% of pupils got five good GCSEs.
Today it’s one of the most popular schools in the area; almost all students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, 93% are from ethnic minorities and 68% get at least five good GCSEs.
Gladesmore’s students don’t fit Phillips’s ethnic profile of educational success – they are predominantly of African Caribbean origin. There are children from Turkish, Somali, Kurdish and disadvantaged white communities – but few Chinese, Indian or Polish children. The ethnic mix has been virtually static for 16 years, as have levels of disadvantage. Tottenham, still recovering from the stigma left by the 2011 riots, has not seen the same gentrification as parts of neighbouring Hackney.
When the Guardian visits, it’s lunchtime and the dining hall is busy – 80% of the students are on free school meals. The atmosphere is relaxed; staff interact with the children in a lively, fun way – 19 staff are former pupils; 14 pupils are children of staff. It feels like a big, happy family.
Tony Hartney has been Gladesmore’s headteacher since 1999. He was there when it was at the bottom, and he’s played a key role in its journey to the top, as can be seen from a quick visit to the Rate my Teacher website. There’s often abuse, but Barnsley-born Hartney gets five stars all-round.
“Simply the best!!!!” says one pupil. “BRILLIANT headteacher”, says another; “ur gr8”; “thanks for making our school so brilliant!!!!!!”, and “BEST HEADTEACHER. LISTENS, HELPS, INSPIRES, KEEPS US SAFE. GLADESMORE IS THE BEST. GLADESMORE IS A FAMILY. WE ALL LUV YOU SIR!”.
Hartney walks quickly about the school site, exchanging quiet greetings with smiling girls and boys up and down the corridors, and thinks carefully when asked about London Challenge and the role of ethnicity in the capital’s success.
“It’s true that there are particular ethnic groups that are more aspirant for their children. They’ve pushed their children to do very well at school, and hold education up very highly and that definitely is an advantage.
“What’s different about our catchment, it’s predominantly ethnic groups that nationally don’t do well academically. Yet here they are doing really, really well. They’ve bucked the national trend.”
He agrees with a point made in Phillips’s documentary that it’s important to analyse achievement in different ethnic groups and learn from that, but says the single most critical factor at play in his school community is economic disadvantage. “Many of them are on the breadline,” he says.
So how would Hartney explain Gladesmore’s success? He gives a long, complex answer, which includes – the importance of collaboration and sharing good practice, a strong school ethos of aspiration and success, plus positive and encouraging relationships between staff and children.
Gladesmore was on the up before London Challenge really kicked in, but Hartney says he benefited from a new culture of collegiality and went on a fact-finding trip to Chicago observing good practice, which he then shared. There was also money available for schools that needed it – in today’s climate it’s simply not there.
“London Challenge can take a lot of credit, but not all the credit. It encouraged and set up networks for schools to collaborate with each other, that fundamentally helped make changes. In my opinion it made a significant contribution.”
Simon Burgess, the Bristol professor whose research concluded “the basis for the [improved] London performance is the ethnic composition of its school population,” , says he’s received lots of positive feedback, but there’s reluctance in some quarters to let go of the idea that there has been a single innovative policy with transforming power.
In the rest of England, white British students account for 84% of all pupils compared with 36% in London, according to figures in Burgess’s report. But what is less clear to him is whether London’s educational turnaround is a product of its longer-standing ethnic diversity or due to the impact of newer migrants.
Politicians find it particularly hard not to take the credit, particularly Labour. Here’s shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt: “To say that immigration is the vehicle for London’s remarkable performance is hopelessly reductive,” he told the Guardian. “Evidence from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission and others has shown that the picture is far more complex.
“What is beyond doubt however, is that Labour’s reforming zeal – from sponsored academies, to improving primary school standards, Sure Start and the London Challenge programme – had an incredibly transformative effect upon schooling in London.
“The challenge is now to roll-out London Challenge’s success nationally – especially to the coastal towns and coalfield communities were so many children are currently being failed”.
Burgess can understand this point of view, even if he doesn’t share it. If London’s GCSE progress really was the result of some golden policy, it would be “one of the best large scale policies ever”, he says.
“There has been positive reaction [to my research] and some people have said that it confirms their views. But also a lot of people are very keen to hang on to the view that the London effect was the result of a policy. To the extent that they seem to me to be missing a big plus – that London offers a very successful, reasonably integrated very multi-ethnic school system. The world does not have too many of those and this should be celebrated.”
Kevan Collins is chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation and began his career as a teacher in Tower Hamlets where he went on to become director of children’s services and then chief executive.
“It can’t be that simple,” he says of Burgess’s conclusions. “If it was simply down to ethnic mix, why wouldn’t the Bengali kids in Bradford do as well as the kids in Tower Hamlets? Educational performance in Bradford has not been comparable to London.
“We know people want a single answer, but it just does not work out as simply as that. You probably need a number of things to happen to generate improvement – you need children and families who have high aspirations.”
Burgess is pleased to hear of Gladesmore’s success – he says his research is based on averages and there will always be some schools and some pupils who do better than might be expected. But he’s sceptical about politicians’ plans to roll out London Challenge around the country.
“We can make better public policy if it is based on evidence. Knowing about the gaps in poverty and health outcomes between different ethnic groups is important for policy, and knowing about progress through school for these groups is important too.”