Or, rather, why do children from poorer backgrounds do so much better in London than they do in other parts of England? That’s a question Chris Cook asks, almost as an afterthought, at the conclusion of a post that, to my untrained eye, makes a good case for ignoring much of the attractive* nostalgia for grammar schools. That is, grammar schools are grand for some of those who get in but, looking at a wider picture, they do much less (these days anyway) to promote social mobility than their advocates claim they do. Or, simply, poorer pupils do worse in Kent (a representative grammar school county) than they do in London (which does not have grammar schools).
Be that as it may – and I dare say someone can come up with an argument explaining why Kent is a poor example for Cook to have picked – it’s much more interesting to ask why poor kids in London do so much better than poor kids elsewhere. And they really do. There are 164 comprehensives in London in which pupils from poorer backgrounds obtain exam results better than the national average for all pupils. How impressive is that? Well, in the whole of the rest of England there are just 282 such schools.
So what explains London’s relative success? I don’t know but would hazard this:
1. The Rat Race Effect. London is an intensely competitive place. As a global city it glorifies openess and competition. Perhaps this helps create a culture in which improbable success – and the pushiness sometimes needed to achieve it - is both celebrated and demanded. A London version, if you like, of the American Dream. You’ve got be good to get ahead but you’ve also got to work hard. What’s more, there’s something for everyone in London. Aspirations are higher. (Perhaps this applies to teachers too: maybe a disproportionate number of the best and brightest state school teachers are in London.)
2. Diversity is Good for You. London is an international city these days. Its diversity is a feature not a bug. And diversity has many benefits. In the first place, second-generation immigrants have powerful incentives to do better than their parents did to justify the sacrifices those parents have made on their behalf. Furthermore, some of those immigrant children will be from families which have a stronger educational background than might be the case with some of their peer group (ie, the mini-cab driver who earned a law degree in the country of his birth).
Moreover, creativity benefits from diversity too. A large part of education involves meeting new ideas and new perspectives. The outsiders’ view can help form your own. London’s polyglot, multi-coloured, patchwork populace makes this an inescapable feature of education (or at least should, in the right hands). It’s comparable to the clustering effect sometimes seen in business, albeit driven by opposite forces.
3. Cultural Heritage Matters. London’s museums and galleries and libraries and everything else make London the best place in Britain for exposing children to a cultural history that is both British and international and, thus, also open-minded and ambitious. Extra-curricular school trips are easier and better in London than anywhere else. This helps soak the city in learning even if, often, people aren’t aware they’re actually learning.
Now I’m aware that these notions correspond too neatly with things I like – markets, immigration, museums, history – to be the whole story or even, perhaps, a part of it. Nevertheless, I think they may, in ways obvious and subtle, play some part in explaining why, all things being equal, London state schools are better than state schools in other parts of England.(Most cities should enjoy at least some of these advantages, of course. But London seems to enjoy them more than other cities.)
But what am I missing? And, to ask a related question, perhaps we should also pause to wonder why schools in other parts of England do worse than London and what can be done to make them better too? (Yes, Free Schools and Academies are part of the answer; no they may not be all of it.)
*Atttractive, that is, to those who attended them. Rather less appealling, I suspect, to those who did not.Tags: Education, England, London