This week CfBT is launching its new report “Interesting Cities: five approaches to urban reform”, comparing the approaches used to improve schools in five cities across the world (London, New York, Dubai, Rio de Janeiro and Ho Chi Minh City). Each of these cities has achieved remarkable education improvements.

Some aspects of what was achieved were specific to each city – for example in Rio there was a focus on a new curriculum and in Ho Chi Minh City there was a focus on reducing class size – but there was also a lot of common ground in the strategies used to bring about success. The effective approaches used in London and elsewhere are transferable to other cities, but I believe that achieving this is becoming much more difficult in England.

London’s education has been transformed over the past 13 years. In 2002, inner London was the worst performing region in the country, as measured by GCSE outcomes, but it now has the second highest GCSE performance, beaten only by outer London.

London has also been remarkably successful in narrowing the gap between the education performance of children from poor families and the rest. But this transformation may now be in jeopardy.

Based on our study of five global cities, London and cities across England are continuing to do many things right.

There is powerful use of pupil and school performance data to prevent complacency and to enable early intervention to take place. There is a “no excuses” culture which challenges those who say children from poor backgrounds cannot achieve well.

There is also a willingness to introduce new types of schools in places where there has been poor performance for too long. But these tough, top-down and necessary improvement strategies were balanced in each of the five successful cities by support and a determination to improve the status of the teaching profession.

In each of the five cities, there was a will to hold professionals to account for the progress pupils made. However, this was combined with support and training to help teachers and school leaders step up to what was now required of them.

This mix between challenge and support was very strong in London over the last decade but now the balance is shifting. There has been a further increase in accountability but this has been accompanied by a reduction in support.

In the London Challenge, struggling schools were called “keys to success schools” and were provided with mentoring and bespoke professional development.

Now struggling schools, are called “inadequate” or “coasting” with many school leaders fearing one drop in a cohort’s performance will lose them their job.
With the reduction in support from local authorities, schools (especially primary schools) are feeling increasingly isolated.

In the past organisations such as the National College for School Leadership brokered support between schools and provided development opportunities for school leaders at middle and senior level.

Today such support is more ad hoc and depends too much on where your school is located.

Frankly, leaders from many other successful education systems are surprised by the imbalance that now exists in England between accountability and capacity building.

London, and the other four cities benefited from a coherent strategy to raise the bar on teacher professionalism and to attract and retain the very best talent.
Today, the bar has been raised but the looming recruitment crisis threatens the quality of the teacher workforce. The full impact is yet unknown, but with teacher recruitment targets being missed in the last two years, and the total number of teachers employed already going down, it is becoming harder to attract and retain the quality of teachers that we need, especially in shortage subjects.

We know from the Interesting Cities report that strong and joined-up leadership across the city, access to high quality support and training, coordinated support for collaboration between schools and proactive recruitment and retention strategies are crucial to education success.

It is therefore concerning these things are waning not only in London but across our other UK regions.

Indeed some of the retention problem may well be exacerbated by the lack of emphasis on support and capacity building that now exists.

London has been a great success story. It is time to emulate this in other cities in England and around the world, not to allow what has been achieved to dissipate.