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How can London schools be so good, given the high cost of living for teachers?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital22 May 2012

Rebecca Allen

Chris Cook, the Financial Times education correspondent, has been writing about the Department for Education’s suggestion that the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB)should consider whether greater variation in teachers’ regional pay is needed. He notes that greater variation in teacher pay would create a bizarre situation where schools in our most successful region (London) become even more generously funded, with a deterioration in funding in places where schools appear to struggle.
This observation raises the interesting question as to why London schools do so well, given that the high cost of living should make it difficult for them to recruit and retain the highest quality teachers. Why don’t the capital’s best teachers simply migrate to Stoke or Blackpool where their salary would provide them with a nice family home and a higher standard of living?
I would suggest that there are four possible explanations for this phenomenon, and it is not straightforward to decide which is the most important:
1. It’s all about the (extra) money.
London schools receive about £1,000 more per secondary school pupil but most of it is simply used to pay teachers their estimated £5,000 wage premium. This pay premium isn’t sufficient to cover greater housing and living costs in the capital. Once this greater wage bill is paid, London schools have very little left to spend on other resources that might contribute to their success.
2. Non-money inputs to London schools are of higher quality.
I would suggest that London schools have strikingly good governance because they are able to draw on a large pool of highly skilled, well educated people (many of whom do not send their children to local schools). They also benefit from some innovative sponsor input from the (original) academies programme and greatly draw on their own networks of expertise to share best practice through programmes such as London Challenge. However, I doubt this is sufficient to explain why London’s performance is so strong.
3. Teacher retention isn’t as important as we think.
Our stereotypical view of a London teacher’s career is that they work in London schools for four or five years, then move to another region when they find they cannot buy a house or support a family on a teacher salary in the capital. An argument could be made that this type of teacher drift doesn’t actually matter because teachers quickly attain their maximum effectiveness within a year or two of qualifying (there are several pieces of evidence on this from the US). The idea here is that a young and inexperienced teacher workforce can be dynamic, energetic and effective. However, as it happens, the age and turnover statistics for the London workforce aren’t quite as stark as you would guess:

  • 25% of teachers in London schools are under 30, compared to 19% outside London
  • 13% of teachers in London schools have a tenure at their school of less than one year, compared to 10% outside London
  • Teacher turnover is about 21% in London, versus 19% nationally.

All this suggests that we need an explanation as to why London teachers are not leaving the capital in droves.
4.  London teachers are stuck in London!
The Department for Education (DfE) reports that geographical mobility is known to be lower for teaching than it is for other graduate professions. However, there hasn’t been a great deal of research done into why this is the case. One observation I would make is that 75% of teachers are women. Some of these women will be in dual earning households with a partner in a professional job. Where this is the case their household’s geographical mobility will be restricted by their capacity to both find jobs in a new region. There is every conceivable type of professional job available in London, but far fewer in a city like Stoke or Blackpool. This might explain why Stoke schools don’t have the pick the country’s greatest teachers, despite the low cost of living.
Rebecca’s references are DfE’s report to the STRB (pdf, 1mb) and DfE’s research report RR183 (pdf, 3mb). She is a joint author of the DfE’s research report.