No, George, the success of London schools was not caused by academies

Henry Stewart's picture

This morning, on Radio 4's Today programme, George Osborne claimed that the transformation of London schools was due to the introduction of academies. While it is a viewpoint that has been put by figures like Michael Gove in the past, it is a conclusion that you can only draw if you pay no attention to the actual facts. 

Look at the Data

Osborne talked about the reforms starting in Hackney. The first academy in Hackney, Mossbourne, did not report its first GCSE results until 2009. By then Hackney was already one of the top performing authorities in the country for value added.

Indeed there is strong evidence that it was the maintained secondaries that drove the improvement. In 2015 the DfE produced a report comparing the performance of local authority school and academy chains. Hackney was rated the best performing local authority, based on its non-academy secondaries, and above every single academy chain in the country.

Alan Wood, Chief Exec of Hackney's Learning Trust until 2015, tweeted his response to Osborne: "I can say it was the non academies which drove the improvement. Our academies joined later, the improvement was and is down to ALL schools." (@WoodsGolem)

In fact London overtook the national average - on the basis of the percentage of students passing the GCSE benchmark - in 2003, years before a single academy had delivered any results. Academies could not have been responsible for the transformation, as most of the improvement happened before even the first handful of academies delivered results. 

If it was down to academies, why is the improvement only in London?

There is a basic fault in Osborne's logic here. If the improvement was the result of introducing academies, why has the introduction of academies across the country not led to a significant improvement in the North? The argument does not stand up.

Ofsted: collaboration not competition

In 2010 Ofsted carried out a report on the London Challenge, to which it attributed the fact that outcomes for pupils in London’s primary and secondary schools continued to improve at a faster rate than nationally. It found that collaboration and working as a community of schools was key:

"The leaders of London Challenge have motivated London teachers to think beyond their intrinsic sense of duty to serve pupils well within their own school and to extend that commitment to serving all London’s pupils well. This has encouraged successful collaboration between London school leaders and teachers across schools. This is a key driver for improvement." 

 At no point in this report does Ofsted suggest that the cause of improvement is down to academies. Indeed it comments that, for those schools that have become academies, "in five of the six academies visited, the change in designation appears to have separated them from the networks of support that they once enjoyed". 

There is an excellent summary of the Ofsted report by my colleague Janet Downs here.

As the initial impriovement in London occurred before 2003, we also have to recognise it was not just due to the London Challenge, but generally down to the good work being done by London local authorities from the 90s onwards.


The Manchester Challenge: Another Success

The last Labour government did seek to spread the lessons of the London Challenge. The Manchester Challenge, started in 2007, had by 2010 delivered an average 11% increase in GCSE results. In this 2011 Guardian article Professor Mel Ainscrow rather optimistically hopes that Michael Gove might spread the lessons of the Challenge across the country. The article also comments that the third Challenge, in the Black Country, was also showing evidence of success.

Lessons sadly ignored in the name of ideology

Sadly Gove ignored the lessons of London's success, and ignored the focus on collaboration. Perhaps it is time to look at what the data tells us, rather than what our ideology says it should tell us.



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Chris dunne's picture
Thu, 01/02/2018 - 19:11

Agreed that Osborne is talking nonsense. Agreed that collaboration is always to be preferred. However Professor Simon Burgess’s study of the London effect for Bristol University in 2013 shows that the reason for London’s success is almost completely accounted for by the rapid decline over a decade of the percentage of students who are White British and poor, being replaced by much higher performing ethnic minorities. London schools have two and a half times fewer of the lowest performing students as schools elsewhere.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 02/02/2018 - 07:54

Chris - you're right that Burgess's study concluded that London's success was due to a high proportion of well-motivated children from an immigrant background. 

In 2011, before Burgess's report, the Sutton Trust suggested London's success was due to the presence of a large proportion of higher-attaining pupils with a South Asian background together with the London Challenge.  

Another piece of research debunks Osborne: the City Challenge evaluation (2012) found the nationwide equivalent of the London Challenge targeted at certain large cities was more effective than academization. 

As you say, Osborne is talking nonsense.  Unfortunately, it's nonsense that has been so often repeated it's become 'truth'.   

agov's picture
Fri, 02/02/2018 - 10:17

So we can expect all that to wear off as soon as they realise they are really only wanted as cheap unskilled labour just like white British poor people.

As usual after listening to Osborne I was left feeling that there is no other member of the misruling class, not even Blair, who can cram so many untruths, and not just about education, into a 10 minute interview. Not of course that the BBC interviewer took much notice.

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