How do you judge a school and why are London schools so effective?

How do you judge a school and why are London schools so effective?

How do you judge a school?  Is it Ofsted rating perhaps? Or the headline exam results, or its reputation based on parental gossip. These are all valid approaches, but Ofsted reports are based mainly on a single visit, often made years ago, and reputation is a subjective and slow-to-change measure of success. More importantly, the crude one-dimensional metrics of ratings and league tables don’t begin to reflect the diverse range of achievements and challenges at our nation’s schools. Fortunately there is a better – or at least complementary – way to understand what’s going on.

Last year some primary schools close to my home in north London asked for help in analysing the data made available to them by the Department for Education (DfE). As I looked through this I became astonished by the range and depth of the information. Going to the original sources on the DfE website, I started to download the numerous data sets made available there. By the time I finished I had amassed over 70 million items of data covering the last few years’ of activity at every state school in England.

But in their raw form these numbers are almost impossible to interpret, and like any large data set they include inconsistencies and glitches of various kinds. Yet these days we have the technology to overcome such limitations, from blazingly fast personal computers to powerful software for processing and displaying data. I decided to put these tools to use on the DfE data, initially just to satisfy my own curiosity.

I’m now releasing the results of this work online at SchoolDash.com. The first release, made on 10th September, includes a series of interactive maps showing educational trends across England at national, regional and local levels.

These maps illustrate the astonishing effectiveness of London’s schools. Education in our capital city starts with a number of apparent disadvantages, including very large schools, high levels of economic deprivation and a very high proportion of pupils for whom English is an additional language. Nevertheless, schools in London outperform the rest of the country on a wide range of measures, including academic attainment at Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11) and in GCSE results. They also do a particularly good job of supporting disadvantaged pupils (i.e. those from poor families). Naturally there are exceptions to these broad generalisations and considerable variation within London itself, for example at Key Stage 1 (ages 3-7).

There has been much debate in education circles as to why London does so well. Almost certainly, the London Challenge initiative launched by the Labour government in 2003 has had a big influence in turning around what was previously an educationally underperforming region. But there are surely other factors too, including the higher level of funding received by London schools, as well as the intellectual and cultural vibrancy of the city itself.

My next aim is to present information on individual schools, and to link this to the geographical data I’ve already made available. This information will be rolled out in stages, starting in the next few days and continuing through the rest of September and October.

Focusing on numbers in this way is sometimes seen as counterproductive, especially in education, where unquantifiable and ineffable factors are at least as important as statistics. I have some sympathy for this view, and certainly wouldn’t claim that these numbers can tell us everything we might like to know. But they do tell us a lot, and I think everyone – teachers, governors, parents, pupils and politicians among others – should have access to them in a way that makes them useful and comprehensible. Only in this way will we be able to appreciate our education system in all its incredible richness, work on eliminating its shortcomings, and celebrate its diverse range of activities and achievements.