Learning lessons From ‘The Greatest City on Earth’

Posted on 6th Jun 2016 in Which London School?, School News

Angela Drew, Headmistress of Bromley High School GDST, says making use of close proximity to London helps set a global benchmark for education...

Success breeds success. This is no more true than in the competitive educational environment of London and the South-East. The domination of the academic school league tables by schools in what Boris Johnson’s Vision for 2020 describes as ‘The Greatest City on Earth’ is amply demonstrated by the latest Sunday Times Parent Power Table. Eight of the top 10 schools might fairly be called London or Greater London schools (including one highly selective state grammar school, Queen Elizabeth’s School, Barnet) and the remaining two, Guildford High School and Brighton College, can also be found in the pages of this guide. 

A clue to one of the principal reasons for this dominance can be gleaned by scanning further down the top 20 schools; the only schools which break the hegemony of the South-East are schools based in Oxford or Cambridge. The success of the best schools relies on being able to attract the best teachers – teachers whose love of their subject is infectious and inspirational. Proximity to London, its diversity, nightlife and culture, is often top of the list for bright young people considering their next move after university and London itself offers a vast talent pool of young graduates emerging from the capital’s world class universities. University College London’s Institute of Education not only trains 1,500 new teachers each year but has 4,000 Masters students and 800 researchers reflecting the unrivalled opportunities for continuing professional development offered by the capital. 

Yet, as parents looking for places in the top London academic day schools will be acutely aware, an obvious corollary to their stellar results is the intensively competitive and selective admissions process in the capital. Queen Elizabeth’s School, Barnet has 2,000 applicants for its 180 places and numbers attending Open Days at some of the most popular independent day schools can be positively alarming. Small wonder that parental anxiety has fuelled an enormous boom in recent years in tutoring for 11+ Entrance examinations for state grammars and independent schools. Intense tutoring of ever younger primary school pupils preparing for multiple entrance examinations is routinely deplored by heads of senior schools as an unnecessary intrusion into the true business of childhood – discovering new things and getting muddy in the process. In selective senior schools, the search goes on for the tutor-resistant test which will identify ‘potential’, ‘problem-solving ability’ or ‘creativity’ – but the march of the tutors continues regardless with new innovations such as Skype and residential tuition extending the reach of preparation for entrance examinations.

For highly academic youngsters, bustling London day schools provide an exciting intellectual environment at the heart of one of the world’s major cities but these schools offer not only environment in which it is ‘cool to be clever’ (as Mrs Obama remarked on a visit to a London girls’ state school) but also one in which it is ‘cool to be cultured.’ London’s classrooms reflect its status as an international city immersing children in the rich diversity of cultural influences which their classmates bring to every classroom discussion. Surrounded by the theatres, galleries and concert halls of the West End and South Bank, the capital’s schools are in a unique position to develop pupils’ appreciation of drama, art and music.

Excellence in the creative arts is supported by pupils’ access to the best specialist teaching in school but also to external classes at the most prestigious music and drama schools – such as the Junior Guildhall Saturday School. Sport too is often surprisingly strong, despite the obvious lack of rolling acres of playing fields and for one sport in particular, London schools have a distinct natural advantage, the banks of the Thames bristle with school boathouses, a breeding ground for future Olympic rowers.

Outside the capital many of the South-East’s schools offer the enticing prospect of an idyllic and healthy childhood spent amongst acres of green space but with the stimulus of the bright lights of London within easy reach.

In many towns across the United Kingdom, choice of independent schools is relatively limited but parents living in the South-East will find that they have a broad choice of schools within a commutable distance from home. Day or boarding, co-educational or single-sex, religious or non-denominational, selective, mixed ability or schools specialising in supporting pupils with learning difficulties. There are also some impressive alternatives in the state sector with several of the Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Essex) retaining grammar schools, and London state schools have seen a dramatic improvement in results in recent years as a product of increased investment and schemes such as Teach First. Additionally, a distinctive option in the South-East is the 13+ Common Entrance and Scholarship entry to Senior School. Whilst many of those senior schools which used only to admit pupils at 13+ have now shifted to recruiting a proportion of their pupils at 11+, many outstanding prep schools continue to thrive in the Home Counties giving parents the luxury of deciding whether their child would be better suited by beginning senior school as a teenager.

This very breadth of school choice can be daunting. Internet chat rooms encourage parents to agonize over the hunt for the ‘perfect’ school for their child’s unique needs and talents when, in reality, there will be a number of excellent schools in which their child would undoubtedly thrive. All schools value the holistic nature of the education they offer and pride themselves on the excellence of their pastoral care. However, the unusual density of schools in the South-East acts as a driver of quality in education: not only are facilities almost uniformly excellent but schools need to be committed to innovation in order to keep their educational offer distinctive and cutting edge. Schools which use their proximity to London to form creative collaborations – with City firms, Premiership Football Clubs, leading academics and artists – to offer the best career, sporting, intellectual and cultural opportunities will continue to set the global benchmark in education. 

For more information about Bromley High School GDST, see their profile on School Search.