Why Are Poor Students in London Doing So Much Better Than Almost Everyone Else?

For students and teachers, the rewards of diversity outweigh the challenges. #projectliteracy

A new report says that migrant aspiration is a big reason London’s classrooms are so successful. Image of Open Generation London via Flickr user Migrants' Rights Network (cc).

It’s called the “London effect” in educational circles. Since the mid-1990s, schools in the English capital have seen continuous improvements, making the city an educational success story for the most unlikely segment of British society: poorer children, in particular those with ethnic minority backgrounds.

Pupils from more disadvantaged backgrounds have, as a whole, racked up a dramatic increase in their academic performance over the past two decades, according to research conducted jointly by the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics and the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

In 2002, 22 percent of children who were receiving free school meals—a program designed for poorer students—obtained grades between C and A* (the highest possible grade, comparable to an A+ in the United States) for math and English. Fast-forward to 2013, when 48 percent of children in the free-meals program achieved these results. And the numbers keep improving. On the other hand, gains were much smaller outside London, where the figures jumped from 17 percent to 26 percent in the same time period.

“These results are not down to a single policy or factor, but a gradual improvement of schools since the 1990s,” says Luke Sibieta, a program director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and one of the authors of the recently released report.

These improvements entail many transformations, large and small: more effective school inspections, local leadership programs, teacher recruitment schemes like Teach First—which places top graduates in challenging schools—and efforts like the Literacy Hour, an intensive daily hour of reading and writing lessons first introduced to primary school students in the 1990s. But many researchers also believe that London’s educational triumph is powered by a less tangible factor: migrant aspiration.

Home to 8.5 million people speaking more than 300 languages, London has been shaped and defined by the flow of migration, and the United Kingdom’s economic powerhouse is almost synonymous with ethnic and linguistic diversity. Many observers might assume that this diversity would hobble the learning process, but according to the researchers, it’s one of the most important reasons why London pupils are more successful than ever.

“London has always been a very diverse city, and diversity is still a big challenge for London schools. But the rewards of diversity are bigger than its challenges,” Sibieta explains.

“In the last five to ten years, ethnic diversity in my school increased dramatically. Our school has never been as ethnically diverse as it is now,” says Kevin Wilson, head teacher of All Saints Catholic School in the borough of Barking and Dagenham, one of London’s most deprived areas.

“It used to be that a working-class boy from a minority background was typically under the risk of doing poorly at school. But in the last years, we pretty much eliminated that.”

Wilson adds, “Aspirations are very high among the families of children with migration backgrounds. That sort of drive really helps them to thrive.”

According to another research report, published by the University of Bristol in 2014, ethnic minority pupils have much higher levels of aspiration, ambition, and engagement compared with other students. When such an educational drive is fostered in a supportive yet competitive environment, the positive results can snowball. Young London residents also have the advantage of higher levels of connectivity, just one of the benefits of being in a large city brimming with opportunities.

“Having exposure to free museums, art, and science activities, as well as role models of all different backgrounds, really makes a difference about what children think they can achieve,” Wilson notes.

The upshot is that many young Londoners have a head start when it comes to confidence in their abilities.

“Over the years, London schools have developed a ‘no excuses’ culture in education. There are very high expectations from all the students, no matter what their backgrounds are,” Sibieta says.

“This will likely mean most of these children from poorer backgrounds will experience upward social mobility and get good jobs in their lifetimes—which is great,” he adds.

“But now the challenge is to make sure London isn’t the only place where this happens.”

Julian Meehan

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