Is London’s schools success down to Microsoft and mobile phones?

20th July 2014

This admittedly mad idea first struck while I was reading an interview transcript  for our Lessons from London report. A person deeply involved in the turnaround of the Capital cursorily mentioned that Ofsted didn’t systematically use data during inspections until 1999. The interviewer interrupted to check. 1999? Were they sure that was the right date? It seemed very late.

But how would people have used data any earlier? Windows 95 was self-labellingly only released in … 1995. Prior to that, spreadsheets were mostly associated with the weird green-and-white paper in the finance office’s dot-matrix printer. Even then, most people suspected its main purpose was voodoo rather than data analysis. It wasn’t until home computers became widespread, in the late 90s, that most people began developing the sort of skills needed for data entry and analysis.

Looking across other transcripts everyone else said the same thing: somewhere in the late 90s school leaders began sharing data, and it made a big difference. Yet not a single person mentioned how the data was shared. No-one mentioned the internet, for example, but how would they have shared data without it?

Excel and the internet were not the only notable absences. Hidden technology was everywhere. At the launch of the report Dame Joan McVittie spoke on stage about the way London Challenge brought headteachers together and how, suddenly, they began calling each other for advice.

But, I thought to myself, what were you calling each other on?  In 1999, less than half of the population owned a mobile phone. By 2001 that rose to 76% as network coverage expanded. London, of course, had the biggest take-up and  was the first place to have full coverage, with many early providers only operating in the city. Even fifteen years later, many parts of rural England still struggle to keep a good signal.

McVittie also downplayed the importance of transport in her talk, arguing that anyone who has sat on a stuck tube for an hour knows that travelling around London isn’t easy. But while sitting on the tube is frustrating, it’s nevertheless possible to be productive, or at least restful. Try sitting in a traffic jam on the M6 and seeing how much work you can get done, or having a quick snooze on the A42 and yet get home in one piece.

London transport isn’t perfect but improvements in the early 2000s substantially improved its reach and performance. People forget that before the Oyster Card was introduced in 2003 it was expensive and fiddly to buy one-off tickets for travel. Now, leaders without season passes jump dlrs, take the fancy overground, or zip about on tube line extensions  that weren’t around in the 90s and do so with relative ease. It would be naïve to believe that the ability to move around doesn’t make a very big difference to the likelihood of people collaborating.

I therefore strongly believe that London’s successes didn’t just come about ‘because of collaboration’ but because tools became available to make collaboration possible. These tools are often invisible, but they’re important, and if we don’t think about our reliance on them, then we won’t look to see if other parts of the country have similar infrastructure and we run the risk of trying to repeat a model that only works when all these necessary pieces underlie it.

At this point the grumpsters start. Their complaints are always the same, so let me deal with them in turn:

(1)    But other parts of the country had mobile phones and computers, so why haven’t their schools improved? First of all, many of them have. No area has been as extraordinary as London, but the idea that nowhere else has improved is wilfully arrogant. Also, those that haven’t improved are often geographically excluded areas. We might want to think about what that means for their mobile phone reception, broadband access and transport.

(2)    The improvement was really all about the people – without Tim Brighouse mobile phones wouldn’t have solved anything. True. But while Brighouse can move metaphorical moutains, he can’t move information without internets and mobile phones – just like the rest of us.

(3)    Maybe these things matter a bit, but they’re not driving feature. I once watched a history lesson where the students wrote all the possible causes of an event on post-it notes and then picked out which things, if they hadn’t happened, would mean the event wouldn’t have gone ahead. “These,” said their teacher, “are the most important factors”. Infrastructure was in no way the totality of what happened in London, but if you took it all away, I don’t think the miracle would have occurred. This makes infrastructure a most important factor.

(4)    People would have got together because of the moral purpose. That’s a nice idea, but why weren’t they doing it before? Am I to believe that moral purpose was discovered under a rock circa 1998? Anyone who has recently experienced a broken phone will sorely remember that co-ordinating in a pre-digital era is inefficient. Let’s not romanticise about days when people met under the clock at 7pm. Perhaps it worked for lovers, but it’s not a winning formula for systematic reform.


Despite all the signs pointing in its direction, I nevrertheless realise it’s a mad idea to suggest technology drove London’s success. But if we keep ignoring its role we miss a trick. So, how about – just for now – we pretend that it’s true. And as we plan ‘challenges’ in other areas, we think holistically about transport, and data sharing, and mobile communication.  These things are basic, but if we plan for them – in Hull, and Knowsley, and Norfolk – then we might just edge those places closer to replicating London’s success.

And if that happens, I don’t care how mad people think the idea was. It will be totally worth it.


More London blogs:

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner: the role of area-level factors in the capital’s success

Collaboration: it doesn’t happen by magic

How London learned from its teacher shortage

Professional development and professionalism: The symbolic role of CPD

Show me the money: Was London’s success all about the extra money?

More than the sum of its parts: How London’s boroughs helped drive success

London Schools: Now we have a full(er) picture

‘Lessons from London Schools: Investigating the Success’ is a Centre for London and CfBT report and we are grateful to both organisations for giving us the opportunity to carry out an in depth study of this crucial topic.

The views in this blog are my own and whilst my analysis is predominantly based on the CfL/CfBTreport, not all the data I have presented here is necessarily in the report.