Improving London’s schools: LKMco shares insights with Austrian press

21st December 2018


LKMco had an international impact this week, when the Austrian education and technology news website APA-Science interviewed our chief executive Loic Menzies about the impact of the London Challenge school improvement programme.

The London Challenge was launched by the Labour Government in 2003 with the aim of raising standards in the poorest performing schools, narrowing the attainment gap between pupils and creating more good and outstanding schools.

APA-Science’s Sylvia Maier-Kubala questioned Loic about how education in England’s capital city has changed since the millennium and what has helped to drive pupils’ improving outcomes.

Loic explained that a careful balance of incentives, such as funding and resources, alongside consequences for failing to deliver improvements had been an important part of the London Challenge’s success.

He added that the changing demographics of pupils’ was also significant when looking at results over time, as London has seen increasing numbers of young people from high-performing immigrant families over the years.

Loic also shed light on his experience of entering teaching at the time, as part of the TeachFirst programme: “Clashes between gangs were the order of the day, there was chaos, the classes were half-empty, the building was dilapidated, no teacher stayed longer than half a trimester.”

But this has long since changed, and he explained that building up partnerships and networks of schools so they could learn from each other was one of the important positive  influences of the London Challenge.

“There was intense exchange between schools, mutual visits to see how others worked, and these networks and school partnerships are certainly an essential part of the success of the reform, he said.

Here is the full article in translation:

Encourage and demand: London’s schools show it

Vienna (APA-Science) – Fifteen years ago, London’s public schools were among the worst in the country. Today, the students of the capital perform better in the final tests than in the rest of the country. APA-Science talked to Loic Menzies, director of the London educational think tank LKMco, about the drastic school reform “London Challenge”, the influence of immigrants and the lack of voluntary education initiatives .

London has been at the top for many years at the age of eleven and sixteen (at the end of elementary or compulsory education). Not only does a larger number of students reach the minimum standards, there are also more good and excellent schools. In addition, children from poorer conditions score much better in London’s schools than in the rest of the country (see study ).

Bunch of factors

“The London Challenge school reform introduced in 2003 was certainly a key factor, but it alone is not responsible for improving the situation,” said Menzies, who taught at a so-called focus school from 2006 onwards. Rather, it was a combination of many factors that already five years after the start of the program extremely positive changes were felt. By the end of the 1990s, Tony Blair’s newly-elected Labor Government had introduced programs with elements similar to the London Challenge, which began in elementary schools and gradually improved their quality. It is also conceivable that the schools were not quite as bad as they were believed, relativized Menzies. While educational experts compared absolute numbers 15 years ago, Today one can fall back on much more differentiated data material. “They compared apples to pears,” he pointed out. For example, the social background of students has been excluded. Today one knows that one must compare pupils with similar framework conditions in order to be able to draw meaningful conclusions. “If one compares students from London with similar students outside, one sees only very small differences,” he emphasized.

Gang wars and murder

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, middle-class parents moved heaven and earth to avoid having to send their children to school in London. The schools were considered dangerous, little performance-oriented, the teachers as bad. The school in north-west London, where Menzies began teaching in 2006, was also typical of the problems of that time. She had gained notoriety because her director had been stabbed to death by a gang member after trying to help a younger student. “Clashes between gangs were the order of the day, there was chaos, the classes were half-empty, the building was dilapidated, no teacher stayed longer than half a trimester,” Menzies said. He came in the course of the Teach First Program (here, Uni graduates teach for two years at so-called focus schools, in Austria the program is called Teach for Austria ), which started together with numerous other initiatives at that time. (See also Teach First: employment at a German school of focussing and problem child school )

Simultaneously with him, a new director was installed, who completely rebuilt the house as part of the reform. “First, they introduced the laws of the rule of law – the motto: no knives in the classroom – the teachers made sure the gang wars stopped.” They created a system to create a certain discipline. At least teachers could start talking to their class, “because you can not do that if you do not even get your students to sit down,” Menzies described the situation at the time. This very fundamental first improvement, that you could walk safely along the corridor as a teacher, was crucial. New teachers came, and they lasted longer than a trimester. From there it was possible to start

Long gone times

All this has long since changed. “The atmosphere in the schools is totally different, there is order, some of the best teachers are teaching in public schools, because they have become attractive jobs,” Menzies said. The demand on the students is high: everyone is expected to make the right effort. Not only the weakest should be promoted, even the best.

Coinciding with the introduction of the London Challenge, London’s above-average teacher salaries have been raised significantly, but Menzies says that better pay for use at a problem school was not. “For me as a young graduate, the salary was certainly attractive, but it was no compensation for working on such a difficult school,” he stated. Nevertheless, he grew up to the challenge and benefited enormously, was able to gain leadership experience early on.

Partnerships as a model of success

In the course of the reform, the school administration was changed and the houses were given external consultants. Schools were grouped into networks, and within that network, similarities between schools were sought. Partnerships were established with schools that performed a little better or worse in one area. “There was intense exchange between schools, mutual visits to see how others worked, and these networks and school partnerships are certainly an essential part of the success of the reform,” Menzies said. There were also a variety of training programs and trainings for teachers.

The reform was driven by the principle of “carrot and stick”: there was generous support in the form of money and resources. However, if there were no improvements to a school, merciless consequences were drawn. So the whole teaching staff could be exchanged or the school could even be closed. “The balance between support and demand was very carefully balanced,” Menzies pointed out. This is also the reason why similar programs in England later had less success. They were partly voluntary (like in Manchester) and started by schools themselves. That meant that ultimately there were no consequences. Or there was a political initiative behind it, like in the Black Country region, but with far fewer resources.

Socially weak background no handicap

There are not necessarily fewer underprivileged children in London today than twenty years ago. “What has changed is the ethnic composition of the population,” Menzies said. It has recently become one of the reasons for the capital’s educational recovery. “The massive role of immigration can not be denied, East London today is much less white,” says Menzies. Many of the students come from high-performing immigrant families – “from Bangladesh, Pakistan, but basically from around the world,” says the researcher. “They do not speak English at the beginning, but they are progressing insanely swiftly and have a very positive attitude towards the school, maybe in the first generation they do not bring that high performance, but then in the second,”

Transparency and trickery

The results of the national final examinations (GCSE, “medium maturity”), which have to be completed at the age of 16, are completely public. Everyone knows what kind of school cuts off. This has advantages and disadvantages, said the director of the think tank. “On the one hand, this transparency encourages schools to improve, but on the other hand, some schools are trying to look better than it is in reality by excluding those students who could negatively impact test scores,” he says.

The students of London score with the GCSE with above-average results. However, there are still no studies on whether these better test results eventually lead to greater success, to a better life. For this purpose, a project was recently started. It is clear that the conditions in London can not be compared with those in the rest of the country. “In the capital, the economy is concentrated, there are countless training opportunities, universities and jobs can be found on every corner,” he described the good starting position, which school leavers find.