Whether children are from wealthy or more deprived areas, London schools consistently achieve above the national average. What makes them so different?

What's so Special about Education in London?

Peter Tait
November 30th 2017

Whether children are from wealthy or more deprived areas, London schools consistently achieve above the national average. What makes them so different? 

Listening to speakers at a recent forum on education in London, I was struck by just how different education in the City is from the rest of the country.  It should be no surprise that it has its own agenda as the Brexit referendum showed us. The city  is, after all, another country: the centre of government and finance, cosmopolitan and multi-cultural, full of high-achievers and ambitious, successful people who seek the same for their children. The presence of a large number of immigrant families, hungry for education has produced an unusual dynamic, evident in the demand for places at “good” schools. Unlike elsewhere in the country (apart from affluent pockets around Oxford and in the south-east) selective schools, including most independent schools, are able to focus on selection rather than recruitment and tailor their entry tests accordingly. 

There are over 3000 schools in London including 228 schools under the umbrella of the Independent Schools Council, representing the cultural and ethnic diversity of the population. Despite the wide range of school types and the varying quality of schooling, one statistic stands out.  Whether children are from wealthy or more deprived areas, London schools consistently achieve above the national average. Even taking into account socially disadvantaged areas such as Islington where nearly half of primary school receive free school meals or Tower Hamlets, where fewer than 30% of secondary pupils have English as their first language, the City’s achievements have been impressive.  In the first years of primary school, five London authorities start below the national average, yet by age seven pupils in London are out-performing the national average in all but two areas, while by age 11, in reading, writing and mathematics, London is the highest performing region.  Even the growth of super-sized primary schools, the continuing lottery of ‘good school, bad school’ and the battle for funding does not detract from its achievement.

In looking at the independent school market, we can see the effect the demand for places is having on children and families.  From as young as three, children are required to undergo testing and assessment and this process follows them through their school life, starting with nursery and  continuing with important tests at 7+, 11+ and 13+ and often various times between.  In heavily over-subscribed schools, children with special learning needs, summer born children who may later need to repeat a year and those who simply develop later are the casualties.  There is little capacity for any consideration of readiness and the pressure to get one’s children into the ‘best’ schools is unrelenting. A consortium of London schools recently announced they would replace entry tests with a “bespoke cognitive ability” test, but the issue of selection, whether by innate or learned ability, remains.

 When there are eight or more children vying for each school place, as is the case in a number of London schools, ever more rigorous testing seems to be the only response.  To improve their chances, parents respond by applying for a number of schools (often paying hefty deposits at each) and working their children harder.  Apart from taxing parents, often before the birth, such pressure is a curb on childhood.

Those who aren’t successful in gaining a place are not the only ones who lose out. Separating children by their IQ and social maturity at a young age is also potentially damaging, especially when the prime reason is simply to place children in a line-up to deal with the excess of demand over supply.  The consequences of an education system that places such pressure on preparing for the next test are evident through its effects on the cognitive domain, on EQ and on play. Time for social and emotional development is sacrificed by the need for academic advancement and the commensurate pressure at such a young age can be deleterious to their mental and physical health. What makes it worse, even acknowledging that the hunger for Oxbridge places is more evident in London than elsewhere, is that there is no educational rationale for placing young children under such pressure, often with long schools days followed by extra tuition in the home. How much luckier were the students I taught at a non-selective New Zealand school who went on to Cambridge and achieved 1st Class degrees having had had a chance to enjoy their childhood; or others such as Crawford Falconer, the chief trade negotiation adviser for Brexit, Sir John Hood, former Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University or Ross McEwan, the Head of the Royal Bank of Scotland, who went to large state schools in New Zealand and did their first degrees at home before venturing abroad.

Don’t get me wrong. London schools do what they can and many are outstanding places of education, but they are in an invidious position when it comes to the vexed question of selection and the pressure it places on young children.  While it is part of living in London, the question as to whether being educated at highly selective schools from a young age, even with the advantages of being in a vibrant capital city, with access to museums, galleries and, in time, internships and a number of leading universities, is able to consistently turn out well-rounded and balanced individuals with a level of EQ to match their IQ.  After all, if children are separated off from their peers at a young age by dint of their academic prowess,  then their awareness of the wider community and experience of children from different backgrounds and abilities, will inevitably be marginalised. The pressure for places at the ‘better’ schools, both state and independent, however, shows no signs of abating, with the bar for entry moving inexorably higher, despite a desire from many schools for it to be otherwise.   It is what defines London’s schools and sets them apart from the rest of the country.

Peter Tait is a former Head of a leading UK public school and is part of the William Clarence Education Advisory Board


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