London schools’ success with disadvantaged children threatened by Covid impacts

London schools’ success with disadvantaged children threatened by Covid impacts

This year’s school exam results will soon be on their way with London’s schools again expected to be celebrating. But the capital’s record-breaking performance in “levelling up” attainment for the most disadvantaged children could be at risk, according to a new report from teacher network Reconnect London, which was founded in the midst of the pandemic.

London’s schools, educating some 1.5 million children, have seen a remarkable turnaround in recent decades from being the lowest achieving in the country in the 1980s and 1990s to the highest today, with children on free school meals in the capital achieving better GCSEs than those in any other part of the UK, with a lead of some 20 percentage points.

“The success of young Londoners from disadvantaged backgrounds within the school system is irrefutable,” the report says, citing targeted initiatives like the London Challenge secondary school improvement programme, launched by a Labour government in 2003, and the Teach First scheme for boosting graduate recruitment as important factors.

But while the “disadvantage gap” is smaller in London than in other parts of the country, young Londoners still face significant challenges in relation to poverty, inequality and social mobility. Twenty-seven per cent of Londoners are living in poverty and some 40 per cent of London children – the highest rates in the country – and a gap of 15 per cent at GCSE level remains between the poorest and the best-off pupils.

And the capital’s education success story is not translating into wider success. London’s children have one of the lowest acceptance rates to Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, and just 17 per cent of the city’s professional jobs are occupied by people from low-income backgrounds, compared to 30 per cent nationally.

“What is clear is that going to school in the nation’s economic capital does not necessarily lead young people to have a better chance of securing professional, well paid employment,” the report says. It finds that the impact of the pandemic on poorer pupils has been particularly dramatic: “There can be no doubt that Covid-19 has exacerbated the economic and social challenges facing vulnerable and disadvantaged children and young people.”

Successive lockdowns saw poorer children falling behind, with levels of anxiety, loneliness and depression rising, while hard-pressed schools which became “lifelines” for their communities, providing support including food parcels, are now facing the pandemic’s aftermath.

As recent government health data also highlighted, the report finds that already disadvantaged groups “are the same groups who have been most negatively affected”. Achievement gaps “will start to widen again, if action is not taken to support disadvantaged children and their families,” it concludes.

The warning was echoed by former government adviser and Teach First director Sam Freedman, highlighting a shift in schools funding away from the capital over the past decade alongside the dismantling of programmes supporting the city’s schools. London is now being “systematically cut out of multiple interventions and funding streams” including opportunity areas  and the new education investment areas announced in the government’s recent levelling up white paper, he said, writing in the Times Educational Supplement. “There seems to be a mistaken assumption – consistent with some of the wider narratives around ‘levelling up’ – that London is ‘solved’,” he wrote. “But this attitude fails to acknowledge the challenges the capital still has and risks reversing the progress made in previous years.”

Helping London should not be seen by government as “an alternative to supporting vulnerable and disadvantaged children in other parts of the country,” the Reconnect London report also asserts. “Instead, there is an opportunity…to ‘level up’ communities in a way that ensures all children and young people are able to succeed.”

It calls for more financial support for disadvantaged families, including widening eligibility for free school meals, extra help for sixth-formers and scrapping benefit caps including the two-child limit, “as this unfairly disadvantages families in London where housing is most expensive”. It also urges backing for schools to work more closely with their communities, funding for home-school liaison, improving post-pandemic mental health support, and further research particularly into the impact of persistent disadvantage.

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