Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city’s education success proves that an ethnically diverse, low-income student population is not a justification for low standards.
Big cities may be great places to live and work, but unless you can afford private school tuition, they’re terrible when it comes to educating your children. This is the mantra that seems to be repeated across North America, where the idea that inner city public schools are inevitable hot spots for academic failure is so ingrained as to go unchallenged. The assumption may even be true in many cases, but Americans who fear that it’s the natural order of things would do well to look to Britain. Because in England, the best region in which to educate your child at a taxpayer-funded school isn’t some prosperous, pristine suburb. It’s London.
That’s the clear picture emerging from Schooldash, an exhaustive visual mapping project of England’s educational highs and lows that launched this month.
At first glance, London’s education system certainly shows many conditions popularly thought to hamper good schooling. London has a higher proportion of low-income pupils eligible for free lunches than any other region in England. Around 42 percent of the city’s students also have English not as a first language (compared to a national average of just over 15 percent). Oh, and London’s schools and classes are overwhelmingly larger in size than the national average.
And yet, despite all that, it turns out that London’s schools are awfully good. London students almost routinely outperform those in other English regions. What’s more, they do so in an educationally high-performing country that (together with Scotland and Wales) already supposedly has Europe’s best education system after Finland. By age 12, young Londoners are comfortably ahead of their regional counterparts in reading, writing and math skills. And when it comes to the demanding exams English students take at 16—which can influence college entrance and even job prospects—London students sail safely into first place.
The city’s concentrations of wealth and resources may help with these high scores, but what is striking is that London’s better educational standards play out at both ends of the social scale. As the maps on Schooldash show, just under half of disadvantaged London 16-year-olds get good exam results, compared to a national average of 37.4 percent for disadvantaged students. London also does far better than any other region in securing good exam results for teenagers with a past record of low or medium attainment. Furthermore, as London’s levels of income equality widen, the attainment gap between London’s poorest and wealthiest school pupils has not widened to match, but actually shrunk. Two years ago, a report argued that the borough of Tower Hamlets, an East London poverty hotspot, now has some of the best urban schools in the world.
For readers across the ocean, it might be tempting to assume that London is a special case, a city whose distant Europeanness makes it too exotic a model to emulate. That isn’t necessarily true, however. In fact, London’s education system has a depressingly familiar dysfunctional past. In the 1990s, for example, the number of 16-year-olds getting “good” exam results (marks A to C in five or more subjects) was less than half of today’s number in many boroughs, and many city schools were seen as places to enter with a shudder.
So what explains the turnaround? As yet, there’s no total consensus. London’s diversity may in itself be an advantage, but as Schooldash’s creator Timo Hannay points out, this isn’t a new phenomenon.
“London attracts a lot of very highly motivated people, including immigrants, who may not be particularly wealthy but who take education very seriously and are very aspirational and supportive,” says Hannay. “There's a hypothesis that that's a great environment for good standards—and my personal view is that there's some truth in it. But whatever reason you give, the question, ‘Why wasn't it always like that?’ always comes up.”
One likely answer lies in major changes in education policy since the millennium. Some stats have been invigorated by London Challenge, a major audit of London schools begun in 2003, which pumped advisers and extra funding into failing schools and organized groups of statistically comparable schools to pool data and experiences. This continues to have a legacy in London’s higher-than-average funding levels per pupil. Equally vital has been the ongoing Teach First program, designed to attract top-level graduates into teaching, and to funnel them towards working in deprived areas. Now the U.K.’s largest employer of new graduates, Teach First may have particularly benefited London for a perhaps unforeseen but still highly significant reason—a metropolis like London is exactly the sort of place where top-level graduates like to live. It may in fact be that the best teachers are not attracted by the quality of London’s schools, but by London itself.
Certainly, London living costs are high, but the city’s teachers have long received a weighted salary to cope. Their current average gross salary of £40,588 ($62,477) is manageably above the city’s as a whole. New teachers have to start out at a less generous £27,819 ($42,822), but this is still a major hike over their relatively lower wages in the 1990s. Teachers are also classified as key workers, essential public sector employees who are given preferential access to housing equity partnerships and more attractive home loan schemes. In a city where secure middle-class jobs are getting harder to come by, these conditions make young teachers better placed than many to enjoy the city and get on the property ladder—even to find a suitable partner. London teachers still get to experience both the carrot and the stick of living in a big city, but at least the sticks’ blows are somewhat softened for them.
For big cities struggling to improve their educational outcomes, London has some valuable lessons. It shows how struggling schools can really benefit from being given a chance to pool expertise. Raising the wages and prestige of the teaching profession can have a major effect in boosting standards, as can schemes to help teachers deal with higher city living costs. And citing an ethnically diverse, low-income student population is clearly not a justification for low standards. If anything, that point of view is part of the problem.