Why is attainment higher in London than elsewhere?

By Professor Merryn Hutchings, Institute for Policy Studies in Education, London Metropolitan University

The GCSE results published this week (i) show that in 2012, London was the best performing region for the fourth successive year, by a wide range of measures. This is despite serving some of the most deprived areas in the country; 35% of secondary pupils in Inner London are eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) compared with just 13% outside London (ii). Analysis suggests that the London Challenge initiative has been key to this success.

  • 62.3% of London pupils achieved the expected level - five A*-C including English and mathematics. This is almost two percentage points above the next best performing region.
  • 53% of Inner London FSM pupils achieved the expected level, compared with 45% in Outer London and just 33% outside London.
  • White British pupils, minority ethnic groups, pupils whose first language is other than English, and those with special educational needs all achieved more in London.
  • More pupils in London than elsewhere made the expected progress between ages 11 and 16 (London, 75% in English and 77% in maths; outside London 68% and 69% respectively)
  • The percentage of pupils in London achieving the EBacc was second only to the South East region.
  • Just 2.7% of London secondary schools (11 schools) failed to reach this year’s higher floor target, compared with 7.3% of schools outside London.

The results for national tests at Key Stage 2 published in December (iii) showed a similar picture at primary school level. The progress made in Inner London, in particular, has been remarkable. In 2006 it was the worst performing region at both primary and secondary levels, and it is now one of the best-performing.
A number of possible explanations have been put forward for this:

  1. The characteristics of London pupils

    It has been suggested that London benefits from a flow of high-performing immigrant children (iv), and that London pupils may have higher expectations than those elsewhere (v). Undoubtedly the proportion of London pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds has increased in the last decade (from 53% in 2004 to 65% in 2012 (vi) ). But while some minority ethnic groups attain better than the White population, some attain less well, and the recent increase consists of both high and low attaining groups.  And while it may be reasonable to assume that children of immigrant families could have higher aspirations than long-term residents, this would also have been the case when London attainment was low.

    There is also evidence that London schools, rather than pupil characteristics, are responsible for the higher attainment in London. Wyness (vii) has shown that in the early stages of education London pupils do not do any better than pupils elsewhere; the ‘London advantage’ increases through the years of schooling. Chris Cook of the Financial Times (viii) has shown that children who move out of London on average achieve less than would have been expected from their background characteristics and prior attainment, while those who move into London achieve better than would have been predicted.
  2. Higher school funding in London

    Another suggested explanation for London’s high attainment is that London schools receive a higher level of government funding than those elsewhere, but published figures show that the extra is spent on the higher salaries paid to London staff, rather than on additional staff or resources. DfE figures show that class sizes are marginally larger in London than the national average (ix).
  3. School improvement initiatives: the London Challenge

    All the analyses of the improvement in pupil attainment in London (x) identify the London Challenge as a key factor. The London Challenge started in 2003, led by Tim Brighouse, and initially worked in secondary schools before extending to the primary sector in 2008. Similar programmes also ran in the Black Country and Greater Manchester from 2008 to 2011, and these were collectively identified as City Challenge. Evaluation (xi) concluded that the programme had been very successful in improving schools in all three areas, and particularly in London, which had the longest period of input.

    A number of characteristics of City Challenge were central to its success.

    • It worked in urban areas with clear identities, encouraging sharing of practice across LA boundaries, and aiming to unite schools, parents, community organisations and other stakeholders behind the idea of the Challenge.
    • The aim was to improve all schools across each area, not simply the lowest attaining. School collaborations were central to the programme, and it was important to have some schools with outstanding practice that others could learn from. However, the most intensive work was in schools that were underperforming.
    • Experimentation and innovative approaches were encouraged; there was no set prescription of what would work to improve schools.
    • The notion that schools could learn from each other was central. Both heads and teachers argued that they learned most effectively from seeing good practice. The evaluation report argued that all teachers should spend at least a day a year in another school exploring different and/or better practice.
    • The weakest schools received the most funding, generally spent on additional staff or development activity. Satisfactory, Good and Outstanding schools received much smaller sums (typically £1000-£3000 a year). This tended to be used to buy cover to release staff to visit other schools. Part of the funding was also used for central administration; to identify and target schools in need of support; broker partnerships; organise conferences; and so on.
    • Perhaps the most effective aspect of City Challenge was that it recognised that individuals and school communities tend to thrive when they feel trusted, supported and encouraged. The ethos of the programme was a key factor in its success, and contrasted with common government discourse of ‘naming and shaming’ ‘failing’ schools. Expectations of school leaders, teachers and pupils were high; successes were celebrated; and it was recognised that if teachers are to inspire pupils they themselves need to be motivated and inspired.
  4. The creation of academies
    While evaluation suggests that the London Challenge has been a key factor in London schools’ improvement, the current government prefers to emphasise the part played by the creation of academies. It is too early to see any change in attainment resulting from the creation of large numbers of converter academies (high performing schools that chose to become academies); while the first schools converted in 2010, it was only in 2011 that large numbers did so. The focus, then, must by on sponsored academies: those created to replace underperforming or inadequate schools.

    Many of the early academies were in London. But there is no evidence to suggest that they are responsible for the improvement in London attainment. When the year-on-year improvement in academies is compared with that of non-academies with similar initial attainment, we find that sponsored academies improve no more than non-academies. But our analysis of school improvement in London showed that those academies which had previously been supported by the London Challenge improved significantly more than those that had not had this support (xii). The crucial factor in bringing about improvement was the London Challenge rather than academisation.

    It is worth noting that of the eleven secondary schools in London below the 2012 floor target, three are sponsored academies and two are converter academies – schools that Ofsted had graded Good or Outstanding.
  5. The quality of London teachers
    Another explanation that has been proposed for London’s high attainment is that the quality of teachers in London may be higher than outside the capital (xiii). This was certainly not the case around 2000, when London suffered from severe teacher shortages (xiv). Schools found it hard to recruit; vacancy rates were high; and supply teachers were extensively used. Turnover was high because young teachers tended to move out of the capital when they wanted to buy a home.

    Since that time higher pay scales have been introduced for Inner and Outer London, and teachers have been included in Key Worker housing schemes (though buying London property remains out of reach for most teachers). These developments cannot be seen as separate from the London Challenge. From the start, there was a determination to focus on all the issues that had a negative effect in London schools. Teacher supply was key among these, and so the London Challenge team worked with other agencies such as the STRB and Teach First to remedy this.

    The London Challenge also worked to improve the morale of teachers and pupils, and to develop a positive reputation for London schools. In research that we undertook in 1998-9 about London teacher shortages, interviewees talked about London schools’ reputation of discipline problems, a poor environment and poor resources. And at that time many London schools were indeed inward looking isolated institutions where teachers struggled to cope. The fact that London schools now have higher achievement than the rest of the country, and in most cases morale is high, makes London an attractive place to teach.


The evidence that the London Challenge was a successful approach to school improvement is overwhelming. It was also comparatively cheap; over three years the funding for City Challenge was £160 million, considerably cheaper than the £8.5 billion reportedly spent on the academies programme over two years.

Many of the lessons of the London Challenge have been taken on board, most notably in the increase in schools working with or supporting other schools. What is lacking is any way of ensuring that the schools that need most support and encouragement will receive it.

This is the key aspect of City Challenge that is missing from the current marketised approach to school improvement.

(i) DfE (2013) GCSE and Equivalent Results in England, 2011/12 (Revised), and
GCSE and Equivalent Attainment by Pupil Characteristics in England, 2011/12,

(ii) DfE (2012) Schools, Pupils and their Characteristics, January 2012,

(iii) DfE (2012) National Curriculum Assessments at Key Stage 2 in England 2011/2012 (Revised),

(iv) Cook, C. (2013) London school children perform the best, Financial Times, 13 January 2013,

(v) Wyness, G. (2011) London schooling: lessons from the capital, Centre Forum

(vi) DfE (2012) Schools, Pupils and their Characteristics, January 2012

(vii) Wyness (2011)

(viii) Cook, C. Don’t Leave London, Financial Times blog, 13 January 2013

(ix) DfE (2012) Schools, Pupils and their Characteristics, op cit

(x) e.g. Ofsted, The report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Education, Children's Services and Skills: Schools, 2012;
Cook, Wyness (op cit); The Mayor’s Education Enquiry First Report, February 2012.

(xi) Hutchings et al. (2012) Evaluation of the City Challenge programme,

(xii) Hutchings et al (2012, op cit)

(xiii) Wyness (2011)

(xiv) Hutchings et al. Teacher Supply and Retention in London: a study of six London boroughs 1998-9, London: Teacher Training Agency.