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Secondary schools in London – What works for those in the capital may not be as effective elsewhere

The government should bear in mind that raising student aspirations and outcomes as part of a post-COVID levelling-up agenda may require different solutions to those that have proved successful in the capital…

  • Secondary schools in London – What works for those in the capital may not be as effective elsewhere

The North East area I serve has a particular set of challenges that differ from other challenging areas in England. Typically, the more disadvantaged children in our region are predominantly from white working-class backgrounds, with several key factors at play.

Firstly, pre-school support and education is often either limited or non-existent. Disadvantaged families are able to access fewer opportunities for their children’s language development, with the result that they start school behind their peers.

Moreover, disadvantaged children generally receive less support from parents who either don’t support their child’s learning, or are keen to help but simply don’t know how. Many students who aren’t supported at home additionally won’t do much, or indeed any work at home or outside of school, exacerbating existing learning gaps. Mental health issues and lack of motivation will also be more prevalent within this group, most likely because these children are often concomitantly our most vulnerable.

Support for inner-city schools outside London

It was therefore with considerable admiration that I read a news report in March, concerning an outstanding East London state school that has overtaken Eton College and other top private schools in the fierce competition for Oxbridge offers.

55 of the school’s pupils had received conditional offers to study at Oxford or Cambridge – a stunning achievement by all involved, and a clear illustration of what’s possible when you’re able to instil a drive, desire and motivation in young people to aim high and work hard.

These students won’t have had their Oxbridge opportunities handed to them on a plate, of course; all will obviously be highly motivated, incredibly hard-working and very bright individuals.

It’s worth considering, however, whether the support they received from the school, their parents and wider community enabled them to succeed in ways that students from other, equally deprived and disadvantaged parts of the country have not.

Are there factors at work here that can’t be replicated in predominantly white working-class areas outside of the capital with similar deprivation indices?

Is it possible that the students from this particular inner city community benefited from being more ethnically diverse, or from immigrant families? Is it reasonable to assume that many of these families will have highly motivated parents who value education and what it can do for their children?

Another point to consider is that many families in ethnically diverse areas often speak more than one language, potentially resulting in better developed language skills among their children that provide a sound foundation for pre-school.

I’d also venture that the high-powered commercial environments of London offer a far greater sense of possibility for young people, compared to the urban deprivation and narrow employment opportunities of many northern towns.

Student attainment

The government has tried tackling these issues through a range of initiatives and programmes, notably the £24m Opportunity North East programme launched by the DfE in October 2018.

As an Opportunity North East strategic board member, I’m proud that the programme has targeted £12 million on approaches aimed at improving student transitions from primary to secondary, and helped to improve post-16 outcomes.

Yet more must be done. I’d personally suggest a comprehensive strategy for engaging parents and the development of character development opportunities, particularly for groups with impoverished aspirations.

Our trust has received support from the Challenger Trust Charity, which helped us offer our Pupil Premium and disadvantaged students a range of superb character-building activities, including outward-bound courses, business and industry mentoring programmes and cultural visits.

Well-crafted, fully-funded character development initiatives like this can do much to raise the confidence and motivations of all – giving left behind children across the country a far better chance of emulating the achievements of their East London peers.


Nick Hurn is CEO of the Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust.

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