An alternative lesson from London schools

The capital’s schools have improved, but at what cost to education?

Alex Standish

Topics Politics

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It is perhaps only now becoming clear just how significant was then Labour leader Tony Blair’s 1996 pre-General Election speech. This was the speech, of course, in which he famously named ‘education, education and education’ as his three priorities for government. Government interference in schools did increase with the 1991 national curriculum, but it has been during the period since Blair came to power that the tendency to see schools as a means to address social, economic and personal failings has become most pronounced. Seventeen years after Blair’s speech, we can see the effects of the politicisation of education, with London schools at the heart of government interventions.

The effect on London schools, post-Blair, of the politicisation of education is rarely remarked upon. Instead, in reports such as the recent Lessons from London Schools: Investigating the Success, the story is one of dramatic success: London schools have risen from the sick child of the English education system to become the shining star. But how much truth is there to this story?

In the early 1990s, many London children attended bog-standard comprehensive schools that trailed the rest of the country in terms of examination results. Teacher recruitment and retention rates were low, and pupils were reportedly demotivated and badly behaved. Now things are different. Schools have been re-built, re-opened and re-branded. Today, an average London school has glass walls, an atrium, brightly coloured furniture, state-of-the-art IT facilities, smartboards in place of blackboards and fancy reception areas adorned with leather couches, flat-screen TVs and glossy school brochures. Teacher pay has improved and high-flying graduates have been attracted into the teaching profession. Even the teachers and pupils look smarter in their business suits and colourful blazers.

School results have also been transformed, as outlined in Lessons from London Schools and other reports. London schools now outperform all other English regions in terms of the proportion of pupils achieving five GCSEs at A*-to-C grade (65 per cent compared to 59 per cent in the rest of England); and in terms of the proportion of primary children achieving at least Level 4 in English and Maths SAT tests, London schools do very well, too (all bar three London borough are above the national average). And the performance of children receiving free-school meals (used as a proxy measure of poverty) is 50 per cent better in London than outside the capital. London, however, is not alone in raising its performance levels. From 1998 to 2013, the percentage of pupils achieving five GCSEs at A*-to-C grade rose from 32 to 65 per cent in London; outside of London, the percentage of pupils achieving five GCSEs at A*-to-C grade rose from 34 to 59 per cent. Yet, at the same time, London schools are clearly outperforming those outside the capital. What explains this transformation?

Lessons from London Schools reveals that several initiatives have worked in combination to change the culture of schooling in the capital. These include: London Challenge (2003-2010); Building Schools for the Future (2005-2010); Teach First (launched in 2002); allowing schools to become academies; and the support provided by the Local Education Authority. London Challenge, a leadership-training scheme for senior managers and teachers, was particularly significant. While London Challenge initially focused on five inner-London boroughs (Islington, Hackney, Haringey, Southwark and Lambeth), it encouraged schools across the capital to form clusters for sharing ideas, resources and exemplary practices. A key message of the programme was that poverty was not an excuse for failure; there was no hiding place for underachievement. Teachers and schools were encouraged to measure and track pupil performance as they worked towards agreed targets. Interventions were planned for pupils who were in danger of not meeting targets (for example, holding crash courses in relevant subjects during the holidays to get pupils through GCSE exams). The performance agenda was also driven by Ofsted and the Department for Education and Skills, with the publication of results, league tables and Ofsted reports. Allowing schools to become academies has also given heads more control over budgets and resources. Again, this flexibility has contributed to structural change and the adoption of new practices. London Challenge has since been exported to Manchester and the West Midlands.

Challenging the link between poverty and educational underachievement may well be a positive outcome of London Challenge and other interventions like Teach First. Many London schools are smarter places to work and both staff and children are motivated and proud of their schools. As examination results show, more children are taking and passing exams that will help them to get jobs, access further education or get on to training schemes. This is worthy of recognition. However, the focus on poverty and social outcomes in Lessons from London Schools is indicative of the instrumental thinking that has increasingly been applied to education over the past 15 years or so. Rather than a journey of exploration into different realms of knowledge and human experience, education is discussed in terms of achieving extrinsic outcomes (skills, examination results, behaviours, dispositions, social mobility etc.). Here, schooling has become more about social inclusion than education. The aim has simply been to prevent young people from becoming NEETs (not in education, employment or training) and drifting into anti-social behaviour.

Undoubtedly, London schools have become much better at delivering outcomes and results. New models of leadership and performance management have borrowed heavily from the business world. School management has become more top-down. Passing exams, collecting performance data and meeting Ofsted criteria all drive much of what teachers do in the classroom. Lessons have become formulaic and focused on delivering measurable learning objectives. Assessment for learning is de rigueur, which means teachers are constantly evaluating whether pupils have met expected outcomes.

As educationalist Gert Biesta observes, the problem with the instrumental approach is that education is not a causal process: intervention X does not necessarily lead to outcome Y. Rather, Biesta describes education as a process of symbolically mediated interaction. Teachers can provide learning opportunities, but because humans are subjective beings they may learn different things from the same lesson. When teaching and schooling become focused on delivering set outcomes, there is a danger that this is all they do. The success of teaching becomes a question of ticking boxes rather than exploring knowledge. An ‘effective’ lesson is one in which learning objectives have been met regardless of whether or not pupils have been introduced to new and challenging ideas or concepts. But this is training rather than education. Where schools have been transformed into systems for delivering outcomes, they may well lose sight of education proper.

This is the second problem with the instrumentalist approach: In seeking ‘improvement’ and ‘effectiveness’, as measured through data, it is presumed that the purpose of education is a given. Rarely is the question asked, ‘Improvement for what?’. As a result, the curriculum, what is being taught, is infrequently discussed. Tellingly, while Lessons from London Schools is penned in the language of ‘systems’, ‘effectiveness’ and ‘data management’, it has nothing to say on the curriculum. What is missed in the narrative of London schools’ success is how the curriculum, and what is assessed, has changed since the early 1990s.

Given their prominence as a measure of the success in secondary schools, it is worth focusing on how GCSEs have changed. Nationally, the trend is one of grade inflation, increasing pass rates and the hollowing out of academic or theoretical knowledge. In the late 1980s, about 40 per cent of GCSE entries were awarded C or above. This percentage rose steadily from the 1980s onwards and, by 2011, peaked at 70 per cent. While a small increase in the pass rate could be down to better teaching and studying by pupils, it is clear that a more fundamental change has taken place: exams have been made easier to pass. In the 2000s, examination boards are said to have engaged in a ‘race to the bottom’ in an effort to increase custom. When I was teaching GCSE geography at a London school, I recall one examination board enticing teachers with the claim that the new syllabus contained ‘the same core geography but in less depth’. GCSEs have been made easier to pass by reducing the quantity of knowledge in the syllabus; reducing the length of exams; examining modules one at a time rather than through terminal exams at the end of the course; awarding marks for opinions and regurgitating simple facts rather than showing understanding through extended written answers; and deprioritising knowledge of concepts and vocabulary. As one teacher explained, ‘marks are awarded to pupils whether they demonstrate understanding of concepts and specialist vocabulary or not’.

That GCSEs are no longer a serious measure of educational achievement is one reason why the Department for Education is trying to reform them. While it is a positive step to revamp the knowledge content of GCSEs and return to terminal examinations, by itself, it will not reverse the cultural change that has taken place within the education and assessment system which seeks to reward children for effort and basic skills rather than demanding that they show mastery of theoretical knowledge and can explore difficult ideas. For now at least, if you want to know if children have achieved knowledge and understanding of an academic discipline, A-levels are a better starting point as they have retained a stronger disciplinary basis (although current A-level reform may change that).

Of course, some of the trends discussed thus far are national. So, what is distinctive about London? Lessons from London Schools delves into questions of gentrification, immigration, ethnic diversity and what it calls the ‘London effect’. The authors rightly note that each of these factors may well have contributed to the improved performance of London schools, but they do not find them causal. Some boroughs like Hackney have experienced significant gentrification since the 1990s. Children of middle-class parents tend to have a higher starting point in terms of what they know and can do, thus improving local school results.

The impact of immigration on schools is something that deserves more research. One recent study found that children from ethnic minority backgrounds perform better than white-British pupils in GCSEs. Ethnic minorities may or may not be more motivated to succeed than British children, but then London is no stranger to either immigration or ethnic diversity.

One trend that may be becoming more significant is what the report calls the London effect. Here, the authors cite studies suggesting that children in London aspire to more ambitious jobs and careers than those outside the capital. This does fit the pattern of the changing geography of England with more and better jobs being found in London than elsewhere (with some notable exceptions like Manchester and Birmingham). There is a growing economic and cultural gap between London and the rest of England, so perhaps we should not be surprised that this is also the case with school results.

The movement to transform London’s schools has also given rise to some experimentation and curriculum innovation. Academies and free schools have more autonomy to determine their own curriculum. The East London Science School and Pimlico Academy are two examples of schools implementing their own knowledge-led curriculum, albeit in different ways. The Greater London Authority has also initiated some positive schemes to support subject-based teaching through the London Schools Excellence Fund and its new London Curriculum. With private schools also doing their own thing (and teaching to international GCSE specifications), the educational picture across London is much less uniform that it used to be.

Nevertheless, I tend to agree with Lessons from London Schools that the main driver of change has been interventions like London Challenge, Teach First and the establishment of academies, combined with the accountability measures imposed by Ofsted and the government. While schools in other parts of the country have also changed, London has been the main focus of the political will to transform schools – hence its schools have changed the most. While schools may look better, and more pupils may be engaged in ‘learning’, there has been a fundamental transformation in the nature of teaching whereby data is valued more than education. The growth of instrumental thinking in education is itself a reflection of the declining value of academic knowledge, of engaging children in what Michael Oakeshott and Richard Pring describe as worthwhile knowledge through an engagement with the bests aspect of our culture. The content of the curriculum is thus a moral question. It is this moral language that school leaders and teachers need to re-discover to arrest the drift into instrumentalism. Now that really would transform schools for the better.

Alex Standish is a senior Lecturer in geography education at the UCL Institute of Education. With supporting material from Kirsty Holder, head of geography, Fortismere School, London.

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Topics Politics


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