What Parents Can Learn from the Success of London's Education System
For a city whose education system is more likely to conjure up images of urban deprivation, gang culture and a high proportion of pupils whose native language isn’t English, it’s surprising to learn that London actually has what’s now being branded the best education system in the UK.
While London ten years ago may have been among the worst places in Britain to be educated, it’s achieved a remarkable turnaround if the statistics are anything to go by, to the point that it now outperforms the rest of the UK.
These perhaps unexpected findings are the result of investigation into statistics looking at what pupils do when they leave school, and, in case you were wondering whether the results are skewed by London’s more affluent pupils, it turns out that, of those taking A-levels in Inner London who are also eligible for free meals, 63% will continue to higher education. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that it’s a higher figure than for the country as a whole outside London. What’s more, researchers have found no evidence that these statistics are the result of a ‘London advantage’ gained from greater economic and cultural opportunities in the capital.
So what’s the secret of London’s success, and what can we learn from it? There are many theories, and it’s been the subject of detailed research that has found a number of contributing factors. In this article, we look at how some of these factors, and other theories put forward about the success of education in the capital, can be applied by parents and students to help improve education at the individual level.
One of the possible factors thought to be behind the success of London’s education system is the presence of an increasing number of academies, which are funded by the Government but are not tied to the National Curriculum, allowing them greater freedom. Half of London’s secondary schools are now academies. And it’s not just academies; encouragingly, there’s a growing number of other different kinds of school available to choose from, with more schools – such as free schools – stirring things up and daring to be different. It’s schools like these that allow progress in the education system, as some are radically different from traditional schools (the Thomas Deacon Academy, for instance, has created a business-like school environment, with no bells or playground). Whatever their specific teaching methods, research has highlighted unifying characteristics among these schools, such as self-confidence and optimism, with highly effective leadership and motivated teaching staff; they were also good at providing education based on data – that is, closely analysing performance data and basing teaching methods on proven results.
Coupled with the rise in such schools that break the mould, we now have more information about schools at our fingertips than ever before, and this makes it easy for ambitious parents to be discerning in choosing the best school for their child. With school league tables readily available, it’s easy to judge a school by its academic performance, and this in turn has driven competition between schools, forcing them to strive to improve and pushing up quality. All this means that you’re now much better able to find a school that would suit your child as an individual, making it possible to tailor your child’s schooling experience to a style that works for them.
The importance of good teachers
The success of London’s education system also highlighted the effectiveness of the Teach First scheme, an initiative that has seen many bright, energetic young graduates begin teaching careers in troubled schools in deprived urban areas. The success of this scheme highlights how important it is for children to be taught by good teachers. The gifted young graduates who undertake the Teach First scheme have clearly met with considerable success at inspiring younger generations to achieve a higher level of academic attainment. Children in inner London whose parents didn’t go to university may lack the impetus from their parents to help them reach undergraduate level, but if their teachers are inspiring them, this goes a long way towards making up for the lack of such support and encouragement at home. Conversely, even if a child’s parents hold a degree from a top university, the damage that can be done by low-quality teaching by demoralised, disengaged teachers is difficult to overstate.
The take-home message from this for parents of any background is this: your children’s teachers are an important part of their upbringing, and it’s vital to ensure that you’re getting good ones when you’re choosing a school. You can do so by being discerning in your choice of school, asking the right questions when you visit a school for the first time, and perhaps even asking to meet some of the teachers (if you can ask to observe part of a lesson, even better, though this may well not be allowed).
One of the observations linked to the research on London’s educational success is that London has a graduate economy, which means that children in its education system are more likely to have parents who are also graduates – which in turn gives children a higher level of academic support at home. The implication of this is that it’s important for parents to be able to support and encourage their children’s academic endeavours, rewarding success and being there to help with homework when it’s needed. It stands to reason that if children grow up in an environment in which academic success is valued and prized, they’re more likely to strive for academic success themselves. As a parent, you don’t have to have a degree yourself to cultivate this kind of environment. For example, studies have found that children who grow up in a house that has lots of books go on to achieve a higher level of education. So, it’s not necessarily the fact that the parents have a degree: it’s the presence of books (which aren’t even a big expense, given that they can be acquired very cheaply second-hand) that makes the difference in creating an intellectual environment in which children feel motivated to learn.
Monitoring pupil performance
Another key element of the statistics on London’s education system is the need for better interpretation of pupil performance data. London’s schools have been able to improve through their systematic use of data: by careful benchmarking, and comparison with other schools, the underperforming schools were able to see that change was possible, which brought about the greater optimism needed to raise the bar.
So how does this apply to you? We’ve already seen that looking at the academic performance data for the schools in your area will allow you to determine which schools are likely to provide the best education for your child, and that performance data in general is good because it drives competition between schools, resulting in quality going up. But monitoring academic performance is a good idea on an individual level, too. Monitoring your child’s academic progress (ideally without them feeling that they’re under too close scrutiny) throughout their school years will allow you to identify any areas where they may be struggling and provide adequate support when needed. We’ll look in more detail at academic underperformance in the next section. An important point to make here is that employing scientific principles to your monitoring would be beneficial; if it’s more anecdotal (“they normally bring home As, but now they only seem to bring home Cs”), you have no concrete evidence to work from and you risk blowing it out of proportion. It may seem over the top, but creating a spreadsheet to record grades achieved in different subjects will give you some solid data to work with; you’ll know objectively what’s normal for your child, and this will allow you to identify whether underperformance is becoming something to be concerned about.
Tackling academic underperformance
Another angle is that London schools have been quick to tackle academic underperformance, and that individual schools have adopted a “no excuses” approach to underperformance, placing higher expectations on individual pupils. Another key characteristic of London schools’ approach to tackling underperformance was that it was a sustained effort that took place over a decade. Underperformance often isn’t something that can be fixed overnight: it requires a patient, committed and optimistic effort that looks beyond the need for immediate results.
As the parent of a school-age child, you can do your bit to identify if and when your child starts underperforming and then to support them as they work their way through it. There are many possible reasons behind academic underperformance, and the process of tackling it begins with identifying which areas they’re underperforming in. For example, it could be for one particular subject, or across a range of subjects; it could be a lower-than-expected grade in one exam, or it could be a gradual decline in achievement. As mentioned previously, monitoring their performance in a systematic way will give you empirical evidence that will allow you to spot anomalies and trends.
When you’ve spotted that your child is underperforming, you need to be gentle in your approach to discussing it with them. Blaming them or telling them off is only going to make the situation worse. As London schools have found, an optimistic attitude – a belief that improvement is possible – is essential in turning around underperformance; you’ll need to be patient, too, knowing that improvement may not happen overnight. Once your child knows that you’re not cross with them, you can then start trying to get to the bottom of what’s behind it. There are many possible reasons: bullying at school, lack of motivation, and getting distracted by personal problems are just three potential causes. In a previous article, we’ve outlined more advice on how to tackle academic underperformance, so take a look at that (and get your child to read it) for more detail on what to include in an action plan to improve grades.
A summary of key lessons parents can learn from London’s success
We end by summarising the key points for parents from the success of London’s education system.
- Your choice of school is incredibly important, so make your choice carefully. Check out league tables and consider schools that do things differently.
- Good teachers are also important in inspiring your children to achieve a higher level of academic performance and attainment. See if you can meet some of them before deciding to send your child to a particular school.
- At home, ensure that your children feel encouraged in their academic pursuits (and create an intellectual environment with plenty of books!). Be there to support them and help with homework when needed.
- Objectively monitor your children’s academic progress so that you’re able to benchmark average performance and spot underperformance.
- Be optimistic, patient and supportive in the face of underperformance, but work with your child to figure out the root cause and help them come up with a plan to tackle it.
As we’ve seen, the turning around of Inner London’s troubled schools may not, at first glance, appear to have much relevance to parents of children at top schools; after all, this was about improving education in an area of great inequality and deprivation. However, the research into how the transformation was achieved makes interesting and compelling reading, and it’s not just other schools that can benefit from these observations. At the heart of the improvements to London’s education system lie things that are important to all children, regardless of their age, background or academic ability, such as the need to feel supported and encouraged, and the importance of being placed in the right school with inspiring teachers. Having high expectations of your children and what they’re capable of achieving is also a key factor, and this is crucial both at home and at school. Above all, maintaining an optimistic approach to your children’s education, even if things go wrong, will keep them on the right track and put you in a better position to be able to help them achieve great things.