The future of London schools

I was educated in London state schools, all my children have been educated in London state schools and I have been actively involved in those schools as a parent and governor for over 20 years. I care passionately about the future of London education and am proud of what we have achieved in the last decade. In spite of the frequent demonization of London schools by sections of our ruling elite and media commentators who chose to educate their children elsewhere, we have been one of the great success stories of the last ten years.  London has gone from being the national underdog to outperforming every other region in the country even though it contains some of England’s most disadvantaged communities. But now we face new challenges. The coalition legacy threatens to undo much of what has been achieved and Labour needs a new plan for the capital.

One of the most important things to remember about London is that, in terms of education provision it is similar to a small nation state; London’s population isn’t just more than twice the size of the devolved regions of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it also dwarfs some of the high fliers in the international league tables, countries like Singapore and Finland. And yet in spite of the capital’s size it is currently almost impossible to take a strategic view of London education.

The demise of the Inner London Education Authority, under which I was educated, pushed power and responsibility down to individual borough level. Many local authorities, though small, have done a good job. But the uncomfortable reality is that a young Londoner could live in one borough, be educated in another and end up training or working in a third. For those experiences to be managed coherently at every level there needs to be an overview of place planning, school improvement, the collection and dissemination of data, careers, FE, the youth service, as well as teacher recruitment, continuing professional and curriculum development.

The coalition’s power grab to the centre means all new schools must be academies or free schools, commissioned by and contracted to the Secretary of State. Free schools are being sprayed like confetti across the capital, often in places they aren’t needed while other boroughs wrestle with a crisis in primary provision. Meanwhile the number of academy conversions at secondary level means that in some areas the local authority model is disintegrating as schools join academy chains, create their own small trusts to avoid being swallowed up by larger ones and receive their funding directly from the DFE, which has lead to gross disparities in recent years. Where local authorities are battling to hold their families of schools together, central government funding cuts are rapidly diminishing their capacity for school improvement and other statutory responsibilities.

Meanwhile, all “independent” state schools have control over their own admissions which poses an increasing threat to equity and fair access as local authority influence wanes, London already has one of the most hierarchical, segregated and active schools markets in Western Europe. In my ILEA school days around 90% of parents and pupils got their first choice of school. In some  London boroughs today that figure is as low as 60%. The more schools have the freedom to manipulate admissions , and exclusions, the more segregation will increase. And the parents who will be least able to exercise choice fairly will be those on low incomes who can’t afford tutors, expensive house moves, rentals or the time to earn points on the admissions ladder by polishing the silver or arranging the flowers in their local churches. This should be anathema to a future Labour government.

But perhaps the most important question is how we continue the improvement of London schools in this fragmented landscape. Who steps in when things start to go wrong? Who stands between the school and Ofsted in this mish mash of chains, local authorities and stand alone academies? The Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, himself a former head of a London academy, raised this question at the Education Select Committee early on in the life of the coalition government. And the answer still isn’t clear.

All this will start to impact on pupils unless a different approach is sought and the solution almost certainly lies with the creation of a new pan London authority. The GLA is the obvious candidate to assume strategic responsibility for London education, for planning places, holding schools to account, holding the ring on admissions and fair access and managing the vitally important but often overlooked careers service. Since the collapse of  Connexions it is hard to see where young people go for expert careers advice. In the long term this will have an impact on post 16 choices and the local economy in London and elsewhere in the country.

But the new body would need teeth so central government would have to relinquish control of the school commissioning process,  hand over distribution of the capital and revenue budgets for all schools and re-assign the funding agreements (contracts) that govern academies and free schools. Any new middle tier must have the levers of power to match their responsibility to challenge and support, to ensure high standards, fair access and fair funding.

Then we need to re-learn the lessons of how London schools did improve so rapidly in the last decade. The academies programme is often given credit for this. But whether you look at Ofsted grades or the DFE performance data it is clear that both academies and similar maintained schools improved at more or less the same rate in that time, The real success story of London was not school type but the Challenge programme, introduced by the Labour government in 2003.  After it was wound down in 2010, both Ofsted and the DFE produced reports explaining why it was so effective and the lessons are clear for the future.

There was central government input, via the London Challenge advisers working to the London Schools Commissioner. They had access to accurate data, which was shared with schools leaders who then formed effective partnerships across borough boundaries, fostered collaboration and shared good practice, with the strong helping the weak. Ofsted highlighted other striking features of the London Challenge; the clear sense of moral purpose among teachers and school leaders; their commitment to all London children, not just to those in their own schools; their sense of pride in being part of a city-wide education service, irrespective of whether they were receiving or providing support; their appreciation of effective professional development opportunities, use of data and well supported interventions for individual children.

By the time the programme ended less than 1% of London secondary schools were below government floor targets and 30% judged “outstanding”. Some the capital’s most deprived boroughs still chalk up results that knock spots off the performance of schools in affluent rural areas like the Prime Minister’s Oxfordshire constituency.

There are many other national problems that will face an incoming Labour government as it wrestles with unpicking the coalition’s ideological reforms to the curriculum, qualifications, and performance tables. Young people in London will suffer as much as their peers around the country if we can’t strike the right balance between academic and vocational education and start to value the wider moral purpose of education beyond simply test and exam results.

But London could be a trailblazer again, as it has been in the last decade, for a new model of democratically accountable education in which excellence coexists with autonomy for heads and teachers, and fairness for parents and pupils.

This article also appears in the Fabians “Our London” pamphlet published in December 2013



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