Thursday, 20 October 2011

Beetroot Boris to bring back ILEA?

Over a lunch with journalists, Boris Johnson yesterday suggested what Ken wouldn't dare - that maybe the mayor needs some influence over London's schools.

His logic is good. So much of the rest of his agenda for London depends on improving educational outcomes, especially for the poorest families. And the GLA has the potential to do so much more. Although many local authority support services are excellent, and the move towards self-financing principles of 'buy-back' are sharpening up or closing down many others, the oft-expressed assertion that London councils are too small to do the big things well and too big to do the small things well might be true for several aspects of education - special needs or school transport, for example.

One of Boris' aides Munira Mirza has been doing some excellent work banging heads together and provoking people and organisations to provide a better cultural education for all young people in London. This shows what is strategically possible. The mayor's sponsoring of two academies is a stranger move, but is probably symptomatic of his frustration about having no direct routes into influencing London's schools.

The Daily Telegraph wrote back in 2006 that 'power in education in everywhere and nowhere'. The ongoing fragmentation of the school system means this is more true now than ever. How would another tier of authority play into this landscape? Does Boris want to take power from schools, Local Authorities, academy chains, or even the Department for Education?

Rather than 'seeking input' to a random mix of education issues, Boris needs to go back to first principles: What in education could the GLA be accountable for, and why?  And once we've answered these questions, two others follow:

  • What should the GLA do to support schools?
  • What should the GLA do to challenge schools?

Boris should also recognise the strengths and successes he could build on. London's schools are now outperforming most of the rest of the country, and  improvements in certain inner London boroughs are staggering. The percentages attending private schools has plateaued and may even be falling. Rising school populations has been partly caused by a decline in middle class family flight to the suburbs or beyond. The  'apartheid' of racial and social segregation in London schools that the head teacher of City of London School claimed we were 'sleepwalking towards' just isn't happening, especially compared to many Northern cities. Stephen Gorard's statistical work is especially useful here. Urban school systems around the world are dealing with similar issues around poverty, diversifying populations and other urban stress points, and may have much to learn from London as a case study.  

London's schools certainly don't have all the answers, and many of them are still in need of transformation. But before proposing new policy prescriptions, structures or funding streams for London's schools, it might be worth a deeper analysis of the last decade. Schooling in London: What went right?

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