If education were an Olympic sport, then the gold medal would go to London. That’s the conclusion of an important piece of data journalism by Chris Cook in the Financial Times:

  • "Children in some of the poorest areas of the capital outperform those in many of the country’s most affluent boroughs, the study shows. The FT analysed pupils’ GCSE performance in English, mathematics and their three best other subjects over the past six years. On this measure, without any adjustments, in 2006 London was the fourth-placed region out of nine. By 2011, it was comfortably in first place."

It’s not only the speed of the improvement that is impressive, but also its systematic, city-wide nature:

  • "Chris Husbands, director of the Institute of Education in London, said the capital had seen an improvement that had made the city ‘not only the national but in many ways the international school success story of the last 10 years’.
  • "He praised the targeted interventions that had taken place in many schools in the capital. ‘There has been improvement in some public and charter schools in Chicago and New York, but it is not the system-wide improvement that we have seen in London,’ he said."

What explains this success story? A comment piece, also in the Financial Times, observes that though new academy schools have been successful, the improvement in educational outcomes was seen in other London schools too. However, it then makes a link between the performance of the new and existing schools:

  • "The two were strongly related: academies have incubated some of the country’s leading educational innovators. Ark Schools and the Harris academies, both highly regarded charitable chains of schools, are mostly focused on the city. These local academy chains showed councils and parents what could be achieved. That was important to winning over the school authorities to reform."

This appears to vindicate a key argument for public service reform, which is that new providers won’t only improve standards in the particular institutions they become responsible for, but others too. A process of direct competition isn't necessarily required for this to happen, merely the example that improvement is achievable.

In short, it is all about changing attitudes and lifting aspirations:

  • "… many London councils resisted opening academies on their patches. But many now see raising standards as a core mission. The best of them are both ruthless and restless and this attitude promotes confidence that the change will last. They will not tolerate backsliding."

We should, of course, very much welcome the fact that London councils "now see raising standards as a core mission." But it rather begs the question: what did they see their core mission as before?