Last week was great for those of us interested in one of education’s greatest mysteries: why are London’s schools so good?

Some might be amazed by this question, so bad was London’s reputation fifteen years ago. In 1997, only 16% of the capital’s children achieved 5 A*-C at GCSE, and yet its schools are now the best in the country. Last year’s national results revealed that 59% of children got 5 A*-C at GCSE, rising to 65% in London. The capital has also managed to narrow the gap between the rich and poor, with kids from the poorest areas of London doing better than the average child elsewhere.

So what’s behind this change? A new report by CfBT and Centre for London untangles the many reforms that have taken place since 2000. It cites London’s innate advantages—a higher proportion of professionals and more funding—but suggests that four initiatives during this period are more responsible for the improvement: London Challenge, Teach First, the academies programme, and support from the local authorities.

Given this is one of the most successful social policies I’ve seen in my lifetime, what can the charity sector learn from it?

London Challenge was a programme focused on raising the quality of leadership in schools, and on professional development for teachers. Among other things, heads and teachers from good schools would work with poorer performing schools to improve practice. An evaluation of this found that ‘inviting staff from other schools to visit the ‘host’ schools encouraged constant self-evaluation and a more critical appraisal of the processes and teaching approaches they used.’

How often do we see charities inviting competitors in to share best practice and  suggest improvements?

Another key change was the emphasis on data by those including London Challenge, Local Authorities (led by the Inner London Education Authority) and Ofsted. Data was used as part of London Challenge to match schools working in a similar context, so that this couldn’t be used as an excuse for poor performance. Data is now used extensively by schools to find out which kids are falling behind and put in place an action plan for them. Leaders are also taking it up to make the case for change: ‘Moral purpose is not enough…Our group of leaders believed that moral purpose could be translated into effective leadership action through the “relentless” and “forensic” use of data.’

It is not common practice in the charity sector use data well and turned it into an action plan, and it is not normally considered an aspect of leadership. This is an idea that NPC is trying to push forward with our shared measurement and data labs programmes, which help charities use and interpret data.

And finally, I want to mention the use of tested methodologies to drive rapid change in the academy chains: ‘A clear theory of change typified the leadership thinking of the outstanding headteachers and senior staff within academy chains’.

In the charity sector, funders are often keen to see innovation (in my opinion, partly because we don’t have the data to know whether charities are achieving impact) and charities feel the need to respond. But my London example suggests that the energetic application of proven interventions drives change rather than innovation for innovation’s sake. Perhaps, then, funders should direct their effort towards paying for robust evaluations to find out what works and then roll that practice out.

I would recommend the report to anyone interested in one of the biggest turnarounds in the social sector. The charity sector is often told to learn from the private sector, but perhaps our friends in education could teach us the most.

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