Schools: ethnicity research prevents ineffective educational policy

Schools: ethnicity research prevents ineffective educational policyAmbitious minority ethnic families are to thank for London’s impressive GCSE results, and not a much-praised policy, showed research from Professor Simon Burgess.

By Michelle Kilfoyle.



London boasts the best GCSE scores and progress of pupils anywhere in England. But this was not the case twenty years ago.

When this so-called ‘London Effect’ first became apparent in the early 2010s, policymakers were eager to track down its source. Their big hope: that pupils elsewhere could also benefit from this magic ingredient in London’s education system, whatever that may be.

Many policymakers felt sure that this ingredient must, naturally, be a policy. And the policy they focussed on was the London Challenge, a celebrated secondary school improvement programme that ran in the capital from 2003 to 2011.

But Simon Burgess, Professor of Economics at the University of Bristol, could not help but wonder whether another distinctive feature of London had something to do with its newfound GCSE success. It was this insight that would go on to stall plans for a national rollout of the London Challenge and save around £0.5 billion of public funds.

Ethnicity and educational attainment

Burgess studies the economics of education. He looks for better, fairer ways to improve children’s opportunities in life. A long-running research programme of his has established that pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds in England make better progress through secondary school than white British pupils.

This finding was controversial and surprising when first published in 2005. Now accepted as conventional wisdom, it is partly explained by the greater hopes and expectations that recent immigrants, in search of a better life, typically have of education.

Could the hard work of minority ethnic pupils be driving multicultural London’s strong GCSE record? “Maybe they explain a bit of it, or maybe all of it,” wondered Burgess. In a 2014 study, he dissected a rich set of administrative data to find out.

The answer, it emerged, was “all of it”.  Higher average GCSE scores were clearly linked to areas where many minority ethnic families live. And the London Challenge had coincided with a growing share of minority ethnic communities in the capital’s population. “If London had the same ethnic composition as the rest of England, there would be no ‘London Effect’,” he explains.

Challenging conventional thinking

At this point, policymakers were under pressure to extend the London Challenge across England. “It is important for us to provide the opportunities that the London Challenge helped to create for every part of the country,” urged the then-Minister for Schools, David Laws, in a House of Commons debate.

Compelled to stop this “very expensive and largely pointless” plan, Burgess embarked upon a mass media campaign in 2014 to publicise his findings. Furthermore, he felt that “it was the hard work and aspirations of the pupils and their parents that deserved to be celebrated, and not the politicians and policymakers.”

Widespread publicity brought the study to policymakers’ attention.  Over the next few years, Burgess was invited to series of policy events including a high-level small-group meeting at the Department for Education and a panel debate where he faced the Director of the London Challenge himself.

Strongly making the case for the ethnic composition of London’s schools, he was widely met with disbelief. “That’s just ridiculous,” people were saying to me”. He also encountered, “understandably”, great disappointment.

Abandoning the London Challenge rollout

As time went by, however, perspectives of the London Challenge began to shift, particularly among senior decision-makers.

A critical moment eventually came in 2019 when the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, made clear that government faith in the London Challenge had faded. “The one [factor causing the London Effect] that is most often cited, I am going to suggest is not likely to be the biggest factor. And that … is a thing called the London Challenge,” he declared in a big-set speech.

Former advisor to the Department for Education, Sam Freedman, gives an insider’s view of the shift. “It had been accepted as axiomatic by most officials and policymakers that the success of London schools had been largely driven by policy, and particularly the London Challenge,” he says.

“Burgess’ research highlighted the role of ethnic change in London as a far more important driver for improved results than policy.” Freedman then confirms: “there is now much less demand to replicate the London Challenge.”

Ofsted’s Head of Strategic Evaluation, Amy Finch, agrees. “I remember countless meetings in which it was left unquestioned that the London Challenge had been the defining change in London children’s fate.” But since Burgess’ research “there has been no education policy initiative that has tried to replicate the London Challenge. Ten years ago, it was a very real possibility.”

A story of aspiration and ambition

Government has saved approximately £0.5 billion by not rolling out the programme, Burgess calculates. Pleased that major finances – and time – have not been wasted, he is also proud to have played a part in re-shaping policy discussions around minority ethnic schoolchildren’s achievements.

He notes that these pupils are typically from poorer backgrounds. Less able to afford the tools that help wealthier children get ahead at school, “the books, museum visits and computers,” Burgess concludes: “theirs is a story of aspiration and ambition.”

See more from Professor Simon Burgess including recent publications.

Discover more research from the School of Economics on our website.