Secrets of London’s success


The improvement of London’s secondary schools since 2000 has been dramatic. Tony McAleavy considers the wider lessons we can learn.

The launch of CfBT’s latest research, produced in partnership with Centre for London, fuelled a national debate this summer. The research, Lessons From London Schools: Investigating the success, looks at the different factors that can explain the extraordinary improvements that London’s secondary schools have experienced, and has brought together policy-makers and practitioners to consider how to replicate the success both nationally and internationally.

Dramatic improvements

London schools have improved dramatically since 2000. Judged by relative performance in examinations and in Ofsted inspections, London secondary schools now outperform schools in the rest of England and achieve the highest proportion of students obtaining five “good” GCSEs, the highest percentage of schools rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, and the highest GCSE attainment for pupils from poorer backgrounds. 

Today pupils in London secondaries outperform all other regions for GCSE results. The rate of improvement in outer London is impressive but it has been most marked in inner London: in inner London GCSE performance was weaker than all other regions in 2000 – today it exceeds all regions outside the capital. 

Pupils receiving free school meals (FSM) in inner London secondary schools now do spectacularly better than their counterparts in other parts of England and the London improvement trajectory continues.

How has London done it?

The most likely explanation for better outcomes is improved school effectiveness. According to Ofsted data, in 2000 London schools were significantly less likely to be deemed good or better than other schools in England for overall effectiveness and for teaching quality. 

Today they are much more likely to be judged good or better than other schools in both these areas and the swing from below par to well above par has been most marked for secondary schools. The percentage point difference between London secondary schools and the whole country for the number of secondary schools judged good or better for quality of teaching was minus nine in the early 2000s. Today it is plus 12 in favour of London, a swing of 21 points.

A similar story is evident in the data on leadership too, but London schools had an initial leadership advantage. This was not the case for teaching quality. From 2000 to 2003, London schools were below national averages in terms of outcomes and teaching quality but, according to Ofsted, school leadership was better than in the rest of England. The Ofsted data suggests that for many London schools leadership quality moved from “good to great” since 2009. In 2013, 46 per cent of London schools were judged outstanding for the effectiveness of their leadership, compared to 28 per cent of schools nationwide.

A complex web of causation. 

The research did not find any one “magic bullet” that explained the improvements in London’s secondary schools, but it did reveal a complex web of causation that included the following key elements:

  • A critical mass of effective school leadership.

  • The achievement of key preconditions: the end to the recruitment crisis, sufficient funding, improved school buildings.

  • A series of reforms that provided impetus for improvement – London Challenge, sponsored academies, Teach First, improved performance by some local authorities.

  • Variety in the mix of interventions from borough to borough.

  • A golden thread – all the “London reforms” were based on a single educational philosophy. This had three key elements:

1, Data and data literacy

One of the most important developments in London since 2000 has been the growth in data use and data literacy. In our interviews with stakeholders there was virtual unanimity in the identification of data analysis and data literacy as key both to powerful accountability and well-targeted school improvement support. 

This preoccupation was not the exclusive property of any particular group and all the major initiatives seemed to have strong foundations in the use of educational metrics. The different actors in the London story are therefore linked by a common preoccupation with the effective use of educational data as an instrument for transformation.

2, A new culture of accountability

According to our expert witnesses and teacher focus groups, today’s London schools are characterised by a high degree of accountability through performance management. Our key witnesses talked in favourable terms about the way that underperformance by leaders or teachers is now challenged. 

The new culture of accountability is made possible by the data revolution. The “forensic” analysis of performance metrics makes possible a new professional dialogue about effectiveness at every level: classroom, school, local authority or academy chain.

3, Effective, practitioner-led CPD

While the schools of London are more accountable places than ever, and professionals are subject to significant external and internal scrutiny, there have also been interesting developments in the field of professional support.

High support through effective professional development characterised London Challenge, Teach First and the work of the best local authorities and high-performing academy chains. Some of the forms of professional development that arose from London Challenge represented a paradigm shift in the way that professional learning was conceived.

Outstanding practitioners – such as National Leaders of Education and outstanding schools, for example through Teaching School status – were given an opportunity to improve performance levels across a community of schools. In this way the theory of “sector-led improvement” (the idea that school improvement should be driven by the system itself rather than imposed top-down) was made a reality.

Effective leadership at every level

As mentioned above, the mobilisation of effective leadership was a central element of the improvements. A shared concept of leadership and the role of the headteacher as system leader were both important facets of this. Our research findings demonstrated a leadership concept based on ideas of “possibility” and “coherence”. The key components of this concept were as follows:

  • Transformational leadership was driven by moral purpose, and a strong sense that leaders’ first responsibility was to optimise outcomes for learners and not to promote the “provider interest”. This moral purpose and sense of advocacy meant that leaders needed to challenge or confront a provider interest, represented by underperforming groups of professionals either at school or local authority level.

  • Moral purpose was not enough; it required leverage. There was a belief that moral purpose could be translated into effective leadership action through the “relentless” and “forensic” use of data: potentially powerful management information about the performance of students could be used to identify and challenge local authorities, schools and individual teachers whose performance was sub-optimal.

  • Challenge was combined with support and recognition that while accountability was essential, simply “demonising” others through, for example, a name and shame approach was counter-productive.

  • Support was typically based on a coherent “theory of change”. The leaders we interviewed typically possessed a set of ideas about how schools and classrooms could be organised differently and how the performance of teachers could be enhanced through effective professional learning. 

Expert head as system leader

Developments in London, particularly via London Challenge, contributed to new thinking about leadership in the context of “sector-led improvement” and the role of outstanding headteachers as system leaders. Within and outside London Challenge there was a widespread view that “system leaders” had a responsibility that went beyond their individual institution. Successful system leadership, therefore, required a change in the mindset of the best school leaders. In addition to a professional responsibility for the life chances of students at their own school, system leaders accepted that they had a shared and collective responsibility with other school leaders for the wellbeing of all students in their community.

Seven lessons from London

In its final chapters our report points to seven lessons aimed at those interested in urban educational reform. These lessons are based on the remarkable journey of London’s secondary schools.

  • Tony McAleavy is research and development director at the CfBT Education Trust.

Further information
  • Download the report Lessons From London Schools at
  • To read more about the seven lessons, see The seven lessons we can learn from London’s school success (SecEd, July 2014) at


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