States Opinion

What U.S. Cities Can Learn From the Success of London Schools

By Vivien Stewart — December 07, 2016 10 min read

London is the largest city in Europe with a highly diverse population of more than eight million people and almost 3,000 schools—and, for a long time, it was one of the lowest performing cities in England when it came to education. But between 2003 and 2011, London schools dramatically improved, mainly due to rapid gains among low-income and minority students. Recently, educators from Asia Society’s Global Cities Education Network (GCEN), including from places like Houston, Denver, Seattle, New York, Toronto, and Lexington, among others from the Asia-Pacific region, met in London to try to understand what drove London’s improvement. As the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) returns significant authority from the federal level to states and localities, what lessons can American cities learn from London’s success? Vivien Stewart, senior advisor to the Center for Global Education at Asia Society, explores.

For those familiar with the London Underground (subway) system, “Mind the Gap” is the regularly intoned electronic warning that alerts passengers to the gap between the train and the platform. But in 2003, “Mind the Gap” also became the unofficial slogan for an ambitious effort to raise student achievement in London schools, and in particular, to reduce the achievement gap between students from disadvantaged and more privileged backgrounds.

In the early 2000s, the London system of schools was seen as broken, chaotic, and intractable. It was hard to recruit teachers and its 32 boroughs (districts) were viewed as ineffective in improving performance.The East End of London, the center of London’s docks, had particularly high indices of poverty, deprivation, unemployment, and crime, and had always been characterized by extremely low educational expectations. When the docks closed, the local population left and was replaced by immigrants from South Asia, many fleeing flooding in rural Bangladesh. This was the context for many of the schools visited by Asia Society’s Global Cities Education Network (GCEN).

School Example
As an example, Sandringham Primary, is a typical large local-authority-run London primary school that had extremely low academic results in the past but has made striking improvements. Housed in an old Victorian building, it serves a multicultural population of more than 900 students from South Asia. English is not the home language for 98 percent of the students and many are of Muslim background. The school has a strong focus on literacy and numeracy. It uses the Singapore math curriculum because it concentrates on fewer topics in more depth and favors concrete pictorial methods. The reading curriculum is based around reciprocal reading and writing.

Accountability pressures are clearly very strong—government inspectors visit schools periodically to assess the quality of teaching, and data on results are constantly reviewed both inside and outside the school. But the school has a joyful atmosphere and an optimistic culture largely because support for professional learning is equally strong. Teachers use the spirals of inquiry approach to evaluating and improving their instruction. They also work together regularly on lesson study using videotaped lessons from each other’s classrooms. And Sandringham partners with other schools in the area to learn from each other’s best practice.

Outside school supports have also been strengthened. The school had a program for three-year-olds, but because they were finding that some children were developmentally behind at three the school started a program for two-year-olds focused on physical, cognitive, and social development. And because there are few books in local homes, the school day has been extended for 25 minutes per day of independent reading.


There are many different types of schools in London today. In addition to schools run by local authorities, GCEN educators visited academies (similar to American charter schools), free schools (founded by parents), teaching schools, and technical schools. But no matter the type or philosophy of these schools, there have been certain common elements in London’s school improvement approach, known as the London Challenge. Begun in 2003, the London Challenge was not a single program but a combination of approaches that evolved over time.

The Challenge had no legal authority over London schools, but it had resources and leadership willing to tackle problems others considered impossible to solve. It focused primarily on the five lowest performing boroughs and on underperforming schools across London (termed Keys to Success schools). Its fundamental approach was to improve teaching and leadership capacity by pairing outstanding leaders and teachers from high-performing schools with lower-performing schools to provide leadership coaching and pedagogical improvement. Additional financial resources were also available to schools. The package of support was brokered and supervised by the London Challenge, which provided training and quality assurance for the expert practitioners, who came to be called ‘consultant heads.’

The Challenge put a big focus on the use of data both to identify underperformance and to target support. For example, it produced benchmarking reports on “families of schools,” that is, schools with comparable backgrounds, which subsequently worked together on best practices. Teachers became accustomed to focusing on data at faculty meetings—to set targets for students, intervene early with extra support when students were off track, and identify areas where teaching needed to improve. The London Challenge cut across the boundaries of London’s boroughs, but there were also some local authorities, especially Tower Hamlets and Hackney, that played a significant leadership role in improving their own schools using similar approaches.

The London Challenge lasted eight years, until 2011, during which time London schools underwent a profound transformation. According to national tests for 16-year-olds (essentially a school-leaving examination), inner London went from being the worst-performing of England’s government regions to being second only to the more affluent region of Outer London. The gap in attainment between the most disadvantaged students and other students is lower in London than in the rest of England and there was a huge increase in the number of low-income students from London going on to postsecondary education. The reports of the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Schools (OFSTED) inspectors also show that London has a far higher proportion of schools and school leaders rated “good” or “outstanding” than when the reforms began. Not only are children achieving at levels far higher than people thought possible ten years ago, but the very culture of London schools has changed.

The London school improvement strategy did not take place in isolation but sat within a significant national context. For a long time, UK governments of both political parties had been concerned about the quality of schools in England. And in 1997, Tony Blair’s “New Labour” government announced its priority would be “education, education, education” with a major focus on equity and on closing the opportunity and achievement gaps.

By 2000, a robust accountability system of national student testing at the end of primary and secondary school and school inspections by OFSTED generated a substantial body of data on performance and school quality that London reformers could draw upon. Chronically low-performing schools were also threatened with conversion into academies (charters), and while these academies had mixed results, they may have played a useful role in providing competition to low-performing local authority schools.

The Blair government also made a major investment in raising the quality of school leadership through its National College of School Leadership and developed a number of initiatives to reduce teacher shortages and recruit people into teaching through second-career and alternate route programs. Teach First, a program similar to Teach for America, was also created and was responsible for getting high-quality university graduates into some the most deprived schools in London. In its first term, the Blair government mandated a nationwide literacy and numeracy program, which produced some gains in primary schools but then declined in significance, leading the government to put more weight on local professional capacity-building initiatives like the London Challenge.

What are some of the lessons to be learned from London? The story of London is complex with many developments taking place simultaneously including gentrification in some boroughs, so actors and observers have competing theories as to which element made the most difference. But a number of things stand out.

First, across London there was a shared public vision among reformers of the need to set ambitious expectations and to close the gap between students of privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds, which lent a sense of urgency across the work.

Second, highly effective school leadership was fundamental. Over the period of the London Challenge and with help from the National College of School Leadership, school leaders in London became increasingly effective in focusing on leadership for learning and in providing support for their teachers’ continuous improvement.

Third, there was a major shift toward professional development in schools rather than offsite. It was led by outstanding practitioners, responded to the identified learning needs of particular schools, and helped teachers to reflect on and improve their own practice. This, combined with national level initiatives to recruit new teachers, helped make teaching in London far more attractive and raised its quality.

Fourth, an intense and forensic use of data was central to advocating for the needs of learners, challenging school underperformance, identifying best practices, and guiding targeted support.

Fifth, the emergence of the best principals as system-level leaders, working one day a week as “consultant heads” to other schools, developed a powerful ethos of collaboration and shared responsibility across all London schools.

Sixth, these strategies were made possible by increased funding for low-income students, some of which was used for partnerships with community organizations, including mosques, for expanded early childhood programs, and for activities to expose disadvantaged students to the opportunities in London’s cultural and economic strengths.

Finally, and critically, time is key. Unusually in education, there was a sustained political commitment to the London Challenge over an eight-year period—across the terms of different ministers and even one change of governing party—long enough for the changes in the culture and effectiveness of London schools to take hold.

The transformation of London’s schools and the increased achievement of its most disadvantaged students in the period between 2003-2011 is a truly remarkable story of how education can bring hope and make a society better. Any effort to change large organizations needs to have the right combination of challenge and support. In this case, a strong challenge to London’s low-performing school system came from the accountability demands of national testing and school inspection as well as from the goals set by leaders in the London Challenge. But this was combined with substantial support and professional capacity building in schools that created trust, expertise, and collegiality and enabled schools to rise to the challenge. There is nothing new about the strategies employed in London but a unified vision combined with strong leadership at every level and a tenacious focus on implementation shows what can be achieved.

Nothing stands still. The new Conservative party government is embarked on a very different strategy in England, one that encourages every school to become an academy, independent of local authorities, and where school funding follows the child. It remains to be seen whether London schools can continue to improve in this new context. Stay tuned.

Connect with the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Photos courtesy of the Center for Global Education, Asia Society.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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