The East London Education Miracle Continues

Henry Stewart's picture
I have written here before about the remarkable transformation of Hackney education, over the nine years of the Learning Trust (responsible for Hackney's schools). August’s GCSE results confirmed a rising trend, with rise in of 3% (to 58%) in those achieving 5 GCSEs including English and Maths. Mossbourne again led the way, with 82% achieving the benchmark.

Mossbourne has attracted a lot of attention over the past two years because their results had been achieved in an area of fairly high deprivation, with 41% of students on free school meals (FSM). It was unique in achieving one of the highest figures for contextual value added, while focusing on core subjects like English, Maths and Science (rather than achieving it through BTEC and similar qualifications).

However Mossbourne is now not alone in its achievement. Just across the border in  Tower Hamlets you will find two schools which this year have reached similar levels of achievement form even more deprived cohorts. At Bethnal Green Techn0ology College, with 53.8% of students eligible for free school meals (FSM), 80% of all students achieved 5 GCSEs including English and Maths. At Sir John Cass, where 63.5% are on FSM, fully 82% of their students achieved the benchmark.

These are remarkable figures, of a level that has probably never been seen before in this country in such deprived areas. It is especially impressive as it seems likely that these were achieved while focusing on core subjects. Even the 2010 results showed 79% of students at Bethnal Green and 98% of students at Sir John Cass achieving at least two Science GCSEs.

LSN co-founder Francis Gilbert can say more about Bethnal Green, as he recently chose to send his child there. But it has been far from the local school of choice in recent years and I believe Francis' choice was against the local trend (though that may now change). Two years ago Sir John Cass was in the top 3% for contextual value added in England, with 55% achieving 5 GCSEs including English and Maths. This year’s figures may place it at the very top, though it will compete with Bethnal Green for that accolade.

Mossbourne is, famously, an academy and Michael Gove has been fond of using this to explain its success. However it is very basic logic to understand that the statements “Mossbourne is an Academy” and “Mossbourne is successful” does not lead to the conclusion that “All academies are successful”. On Friday David Cameron sang the praises of inner city London schools Walworth Academy, with 70% achieving 5 GCSEs (including English and Maths), and Burlington Danes Academy, with 75%. He is right to congratulate these schools but he needs to look beyond the Academies to find the very best achievement.

As I have commented before, when I visited Mossbourne I was hugely impressed. But I put the success down to inspirational leadership, the highest expectations for all students, nurture groups for the less able, total focus on data and student progress, and support for any students falling behind. Little of this was due to being an Academy and the sponsor, now deceased, had little influence beyond choosing the headteacher.

I have yet to visit Sir John Cass and Bethnal Green so cannot give an explanation for their achievements but one thing that can be noted is that neither are academies. Sir John Cass is a foundation school. Bethnal Green is a community school. Both are good local comprehensives.

Government figures are keen to take lessons from far afield, flying to from Sweden and the USA to learn from their systems. Perhaps what they really need to do is look closer to home and take a short trip to the East End of London, to find what has caused the education miracle in two outstanding local comprehensives.

What distinguishes education in Hackney and Tower Hamlets from elsewhere? A possible answer was revealed in January, when comparative school funding figures were released. The two boroughs with the highest per-pupil funding (though still well below the levels in the independent sector) were, you guessed it, Tower Hamlets and Hackney. Perhaps the answer is simple: One key to enable our young people to achieve their potential is to give decent levels of funding to our local schools.
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O. Spencer's picture
Sat, 10/09/2011 - 19:10

A very interesting and nuanced post, Henry.

The findings from East London appear to throw a curve ball at the age old question, "What makes a good school?"

Time and time again we hear it's "intake, intake, intake".

The excellent results of all school types in East London, comprehensive and academy alike, show that there is a role for high aspirations, total focus and support.

The results at Mossbourne and BGTC were better than my former school which has a FSM intake of only 2.4%.

Clearly the advantages of an advantaged intake can be eclipsed by much more disadvantaged pupils in the right atmosphere.

It's been a decade since the previous government started pumping money into the public services. Alastair Campbell famously stated that Labour's reforms would be the end of the "bog standard comprehensive" yet here we are 10 years down the line still calling for more funding.

Could the £55 billion BSF programme have been replaced with a much cheaper alternative and the money saved ploughed into increasing revenue balances?

Inspirational new buildings or investment in extra support in class?

To me the choice is simple. A leaky roof may be dispiriting but lack of support for the very brightest and the least able causes far more damage.

Mr Chas's picture
Sat, 10/09/2011 - 22:14

This is wonderful stuff. Congratulations to staff and pupils. I would argue that having a high performing academy or two in the area has had the intended effect in forcing other local schools to up their game to keep up. I believe firmly that competition works. Get a couple of Free schools in these two boroughs ASAP and the sky should be the limit.
I do think it should be pointed out that BGTC has opted to become an academy and leave LA control almost at the first opportunity.....much to the chagrin of Tower Hamlets council, yet with the backing of Francis Gilbert who seems to flip flop with the wind. I thought he backed the anti-academies alliance ?

Melissa Benn's picture
Sun, 11/09/2011 - 00:21

Thanks for posting this Henry. It's very interesting. And equally interesting to see how others interpret it. Yes, we need more information on what BGTC and Sir John Cass are doing, but I would tend to agree with you that money must be a key factor. That, and the other elements to a good school that you have often written about: particularly good data tracking of each pupil and the creation of a positive atmosphere. Do both these schools have the very strict discipline that Mossbourne is renowned for? I would also be interested to know what levels the students at BGTC and Cass came in with? Figures on FSM clearly don't always show the full range of attainment, although Michael Wilshaw at Mossbourne has made it very clear that the presence of high achievers from the start is a crucial element of his own success.
However, it does seem that the question - to be or not to be an academy - is not really the right one. School success is possible in all kinds of models.... how do we take this forward. ( I do wonder if this story is reproduced around the country, as results have steadily risen in recent years?)

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 11/09/2011 - 11:52

O Spencer: Expecting children to work in a crumbling school is unacceptable. It's more than "dispiriting" - it sends a message to the children about how much they are valued. That said, you are correct about the damage done by lack of support. The OECD in its Economic Survey: UK 2011 recommended "More focused pre-school spending on disadvantaged children [which] could improve skill formation. Better-targeted funding for disadvantaged children combined with strengthened incentives for schools to attract and support these students would help raising (sic) educational outcomes."

I'm not sure what you mean by "the advantages of an advantaged intake can be eclipsed by much more disadvantaged pupils in the right atmosphere". Do you mean that advantaged children would tend to get lower results if they were with a larger proportion of disadvantaged students? Or do you mean that given the "right atmosphere", disadvantaged students can overcome their disadvantage? Either way, you are correct, and this has been revealed in research as discussed further in the links below.

OECD also discussed how some disadvantaged pupils overcome their disadvantage (so-called resilient pupils). It found that self-confidence and motivation were important factors, together with time spent in the classroom studying. Successful schools, academies or otherwise, encourage the two former and discourage absence from lessons. Unfortunately, schools are increasingly being judged on raw exam results with no consideration of context - OECD has warned about the dangers this emphasis brings to English education.*

*OECD Economic Survey 2011 is not available freely on the internet but details of how to get a copy are here:,3746,en_2649_34569_47283558_1_1_1_1,00...

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 11/09/2011 - 12:04

"The impact of increasing user choice on educational outcomes is uncertain," says the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in its Economic Survey UK 2011 (see post above). OECD found from its global research that some high-performing countries had choice while others didn't.

And how do schools "up their game"? It can be achieved by better teaching and more-motivated students (see above), but if schools are judged only on raw exam results (as is the trend in England) this can have a negative effect on education as OECD has warned, with increased teaching to the test, "gaming" and ignoring important non-cognitive skills. A school can also improve its scores by discouraging low-ability, difficult or disaffected pupils - these would be likely to congregate in one school which would then be pilloried for achieving lower results than neighboring schools whose quality of intake is higher and less challenging. And then there's the problem of grade-inflation.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 11/09/2011 - 17:29

It would be great if the government funded some detailed and painstaking research into the success stories of Cass, BGTC and the Hackney Academies. I opted for BGTC because there seemed to be a relentless focus upon good teaching there. I really felt that in addition to an academic approach, there was an awareness that the so-called "soft skills" are very important: team-building, problem-solving, peer-to-peer mentoring, community action. For example, on my son's first day, the Year 11s helped the Year 7s climb a climbing wall -- I'm sure it goes on in a lot of schools -- but this sort of focus upon getting the right "psychological conditions" for learning is important so that the pupils are confident but not complacent. They are also very sharp-eyed about "personalised" learning; they know where each child is "at" and then tailor the curriculum accordingly. Dylan William and Paul Black's research is very important in this regard.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 11/09/2011 - 17:32

And yes, Henry, funding is vitally important amidst all of this. The school has benefitted from BSF and a good budget for staffing etc.

ChampagneSocialistNetwork's picture
Wed, 14/09/2011 - 19:36

I have always wondered why do independent, state funded grammars and even some high achieving faith schools . Will state TEN subjects which will mostly be very high grades. Yet most comprehensives only state only FIVE subjects. I think we all know why.
When the majority of British Children will be studying 10 or more. You'll be lucky if within that number they will include maths or English. Nearly all of them cower in stating how many of their students actually achieve A*-A grades.
Btw this is such a beacon of quality educational enlightenment that is why the "socialist" Dianne Abbott packed her son to private school to avoid him going to a local Hackney comp. While preaching to us all how wonderful comprehesive education is LOL.
Henry when you say 5 gcses can you be specific do you mean A*-C or A*-G?
because even grades below a C (D-G) are statistically considered a pass (although not in reality).

The reason why Mossbourne ACADEMY (not comprehensive) achieves decent results is because it's headmaster is old school and believes in traditionalist methods & a high degree of discipline.

david carpenter's picture
Thu, 22/09/2011 - 18:50

I have doen some work with Bethnal green as an AST and have been very impressed, but what is the logic in supporting an application for academy status.

We at Mulberry were able to see the nonsense in disrupting a good formula for success by chasing money through a highly undemocratic process.

ChrisM's picture
Tue, 17/01/2012 - 18:04

Oh what a hilarious user name.

How about you use your research skills. Assuming you are interest in stats and not just going to go "what about Diane Abbott?" all the time.

the figure given is for A-C.

Funny you didn't know Mossbourne's results were A to C but you still praised them anyway, isn't it?


David Carpenter's picture
Fri, 20/01/2012 - 18:49

Champagne Tory is so deluded. Indulge a proper debate about the results from academies.

Mossbourne IS a comprehensive that judges itself on purely an elitist tradition, but evidence suggests that it is becoming more selective.

Any extra cash and good management from an LA, yes that is sometimes the case, can raise the profile of a failing school. What we need is a more nuanced debate as to why schools sometimes fail- it is too easy on the right to use a catch all slogans and simplified debate.

Value added data has been deliberately removed by this government so that they can wage their OFSTED driven privatisation/academy war against schools in areas of high social and economic deprivation (normally labour LAs see downhills school)

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