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Are Greater Manchester's schools falling behind?
London has had an 'education miracle' after concerted government help. But the data here is less rosy
Dear Millers — today’s weekend read is the first in a series of articles we are going to publish about Greater Manchester’s schools. We want to know how good they are, whether they are improving and how the start our young people are getting in life has been impacted by austerity and the pandemic.
We start today with a fascinating piece by our data and policy reporter Daniel Timms, a former senior analyst at the economic consultancy Metro Dynamics. Daniel has been examining how Greater Manchester’s schools compare to other schools around the country, and in particular schools in London, which has witnessed an educational “miracle” since the turn of the century.
Should we be worried about our schools falling behind? And what can we learn from the success stories that jump out of the data — like the strong performance of schools in Trafford and certain faith schools? Welcome to Part 1 of our new series: Inside Greater Manchester’s Schools.
By Daniel Timms
“We reduced child poverty in the first part of the 21st century by around 40%, but it’s now gone up again because of government cuts. Education is different though. Most of our schools are now ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, it’s a huge improvement.”
So spoke Sir Richard Leese, former leader of Manchester City Council, towards the end of his 25-year tenure in 2021. He was taking credit for improved schooling in Manchester, and indeed, the city’s schools generally do pretty well according to Ofsted — 92% are either classed “good” or “outstanding”. That falls a bit to 87% when you just look at secondary schools – but it still looks like a good result.
But Ofsted results are only one way to measure how schools perform. There’s another, perhaps cruder, metric: results. In 1992, half of Greater Manchester’s boroughs had better results than the national average, if you look at the proportion of students getting more than 5 A*-Cs. (Manchester itself lagged the other boroughs by some distance).
But it’s also instructive to compare the numbers with Greater London boroughs. Back in 1992, while Greater Manchester’s boroughs didn’t perform as well as the leafy outer boroughs of Greater London, none were as bad as some of the inner city and east London areas — not even Manchester. You can see where Greater Manchester boroughs sit among the London boroughs in the chart below — they are in pink and the England average is in blue.
What’s changed since then? First of all how grades work — letters have been replaced by numbers in the new 1-9 system for GCSEs, making comparisons difficult. The best measure of overall student performance is now “Attainment 8” — the numbers for a student’s subjects are essentially added together, with maths and English double counted. The higher the score, the better.
Look at how GM boroughs stack up now, and it’s a much less flattering picture. Eight GM boroughs now fall below the national average, with Rochdale and Salford especially far behind (they are now in the bottom ten out of 151 local authorities in England for Attainment 8). And the contrast with London is stark. The vast majority of London boroughs overperform the national average, but the majority of GM boroughs underperform it. The worst-performing London borough — Lambeth — is still better than Tameside, Oldham, Rochdale, and Salford. The conclusion holds up even if you remove London from the England average.
Why have the fortunes of London and Greater Manchester’s schools diverged so much? On the London side, the London Challenge, an educational programme under the New Labour government, is credited with a lot of the success in driving up standards. Guided by Tony Blair’s “education, education, education” mantra, the programme gave individual support to 70 of the most disadvantaged schools, and worked directly with five boroughs to improve their secondary standards. The programme was given consistent funding over eight years, and largely left alone from tinkering by the government. It was such a success that some dub the improvement “the London miracle”. Towards the end, it was extended to Manchester and Birmingham, but only for a few years, so it doesn’t seem to have had the same impact.
On the Greater Manchester side, it’s harder to establish cause and effect. After all, it’s not necessarily the case that schools are objectively worse than they were a few decades — all we know is that the position relative to the national average is now worse than it was in some boroughs.
The Trafford Miracle
There’s also a big difference between how some of the GM local authorities are doing. One stands out for its good performance — Trafford. Trafford isn’t just third on our chart, but third in the country. If you want to know what it’s doing right, then break down the schools by one vital characteristic: whether they select students based on academic ability.
The chart below needs a bit of explanation. Looking left to right is the Attainment 8 score from above — how well the average student at the school performs. There’s clear blue water between the selective schools (pink) and the non-selective schools (yellow). In fact, Altrincham Grammar School for Girls got the seventh best Attainment 8 score in the country in 2022. It’s these high performing schools that lift Trafford close to the top of the leaderboard.
That selective schools do better is unsurprising — if you only allow in more academically able pupils, it’s hardly a shock that final results are better. But the data also shows that students at these selective schools make more progress from where they started. For this — which we promise is the last abstract data concept of this article — we have to look at “Progress 8”.
For any student, the Progress 8 score is the difference between their Attainment 8 score (how well they did) and the average Attainment 8 score for other students who started at the same level as them. That’s measured by how well they did in their Key Stage 2 SATs. In other words — if your score is above zero, you did better than expected given your SATs — if you did worse than your equivalent peers you get a score less than zero. The school’s progress 8 score is an average across all students — so if it’s above zero you’re moving your students on more than the average school.
In Trafford, not only do pupils at selective schools get better results, they also improve more during the time they’re there. Interestingly, though, at most (not all) of the non-selective schools, students actually do worse than their similarly able peers across the country. By sifting out most able students into better schools they thrive, but those who don’t make it in tend to do worse — without more able peers around to help them up.
Trafford’s selective schools also pull in more able students from other boroughs. Compare, for example, the catchment areas for the Altrincham Grammar School for Girls (AGSG), and the catchment area for the non-selective Lostock High School (LHS). For LHS you have to live in the M32 postcode area — whereas for AGSG you need to live within eight miles of the school. That’s a much wider area, stretching well into neighbouring boroughs — and in previous years students have been admitted from over ten miles away.
The Faith Factor
When you begin digging into data at the individual school level, you start to see some correlations. We’ll spare you the charts, but we lined up Attainment 8 with both local house prices, and the proportion of adults in professional jobs — unsurprisingly, there was a correlation.
Some schools are bucking that trend though. A few outliers stood out, with one notable shared characteristic: they were all faith schools.
John Dalziel is the headteacher of the King David High School. It’s in Crumpsall — not one of Manchester’s most affluent areas — and yet it achieves some of the best outcomes for a comprehensive school in the country. Most of the students are Jewish, and come from Jewish communities as far away as North Cheshire and Bury. “The reason why it doesn’t reflect our local area is because of the faith nature of the school”, he believes — noting that as the biggest Jewish school in the North West, it has a wide appeal. They don’t, however, require a level of academic ability, and so the results are impressive. More recently, they’ve started taking children from the local community — who have been “delighted” to be admitted into such a high-achieving school, despite not being from a Jewish background.
It’s a different story at Bolton Muslim Girls School — another faith school that outperforms on results — where almost all of the students live within a mile of the school building. They don’t have a faith requirement to study there, though unsurprisingly the overwhelming majority are Muslim. Idrish Patel, the headteacher, tells me he believes their good results come from three things: a culture of very high expectations, the resilience of students, and the faith ethos. “Our faith says, regardless of what position you are put in, you strive for the best and you do whatever you can to the best of your potential.”
Nonetheless, both schools have received negative reviews in recent years from Ofsted. At King David there was some criticism of the way that timetabling kept the boys and girls apart and requirements for a difference in leadership approach. Dalziel is confident things are improving — which is borne out in comments from recent Ofsted visits. Over at Bolton Girls, a lack of facilities (it originally started in an old engineering site) has made it harder to teach a wide range of subjects that Ofsted expect to see. The quality of the teaching in both is clearly good — but of course that’s not the only way to measure performance.
‘Compensating for society’
To understand more about what’s holding back some of Greater Manchester’s schools elsewhere, we spoke to Chris Glynn. Glynn is a Mill member who is now retired, but spent his working life in education, first as a teacher and then more latterly as an inspector, both for the local authority and then Ofsted.
Glynn is clearly a strong believer in the power of education to do good — but realistic about the expectations we can have of secondary schools. “The first thousand days of a child's life are the bedrock,” he tells me. Before they’ve even begun at primary school, they will learn far more than they ever will at school. He emphasises to me just how important words are — is the child able to describe the world around them, and are they encouraged to ask questions about it? Those who aren’t will immediately find the educational context much more challenging, and be more likely to push back against it.
He’s not surprised when I point out that Stockport and Trafford outperform national averages while the other boroughs lag. It’s suggestive of how the context in which children are raised shapes their learning. While there are a wide variety of people and places in each of the boroughs, there are generally more middle class families further south. On average, wealthier households tend to have the means to introduce their children to a wider range of academically beneficial experiences, and will have themselves seen the benefits of stronger education.
Your upbringing doesn’t determine your destiny. “People would say ‘what can you expect from kids in Wythenshawe?’ — it would make my blood boil,” Glynn recalls. He has plenty of examples of students he taught from difficult backgrounds that went on to have very successful careers. But on average, with added barriers it’s going to be harder for a student to progress. “Schools have always been asked to compensate for society,” he tells me.
I hear a similar message when we speak to councillor Garry Bridges, Manchester City Council’s cabinet lead for education. He believes that schools are now expected to be a social service for the whole community — picking up on any concerns about children’s home lives are going. And there are other challenges. The Covid pandemic has held back many children’s education. Teacher recruitment and retention is a major block nationwide — real pay has been cut, and where rises have been given schools have had to find them in their own budgets, reducing resources to do the actual teaching.
For headteachers, it can be a very lonely job, with less direct support from the local authority than there used to be. A growing focus on Ofsted results — and the pressures this creates — has been thrown into sharp relief by the recent suicide of Ruth Perry, a headteacher in Berkshire, while awaiting a negative Ofsted report.
There is also, in the centre of Manchester, the simple challenge of being able to provide space for children. Many of those living in tower blocks built over the last decade have children at or approaching primary school age, but there is little provision within the centre. The Renaker Trinity Islands site in Castlefield will include a small primary school, but it’s very hard to make this sort of thing stack up. The city does benefit from lots of trainees at the universities, who are increasingly likely to want to live and work in or near the centre of Manchester — but a high proportion drop out within the first few years.
Educational investment areas
School leaders, then, face a huge job in driving up results, often with little help. But there is a ray of sunshine. Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, and Tameside have all been recognised as “education investment areas” by the government, as part of its levelling up ambition. This is definitely on a smaller scale to the London Challenge, but includes some funding for academy trusts to take on struggling schools, funding to upgrade school wifi networks, and a “premium payments” system to incentivise new teachers to teach there.
It’s a start — but in areas that are a long way behind like Salford and Rochdale, it’s unlikely to be enough. And that matters, because of course, it’s not just abstract notions like Attainment 8 we’re talking about here. Greater Manchester has some of England’s best schools, but also some of its worst, and where any child ends up is something of a postcode lottery. That doesn’t predestine whether they will succeed, be happy, and have enough to live comfortably. But it’s no small part of it.
The next story in our series Inside Greater Manchester’s Schools will be published next month. Please contribute your thoughts in the comments under this story or contact email@example.com to suggest ideas or people we should speak to for our coverage.
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