Apologies. This is a piece about London and its schools. With Tessa Jowell announcing she wants to replace Boris Johnson and other Labour contenders circling, there is an opportunity to discuss the future of education in the capital.
Any incoming mayor will start from a high base.
Study after study has chronicled remarkable improvement over the past 10 years. Success has been extended across the income range. Children from the poorest backgrounds can expect to do better than the ‘average’ pupil living outside the capital. Results are up and the achievement gap is closing.
What is more, the system is largely self-improving. Ambitious heads want, and increasingly take, opportunities to run, support and adopt other schools. This has been made possible by less rigid school structures via the academies model and the profession led emphasis on ‘system leadership’.
So what next? A meddling mayor adding hierarchy and bureaucracy? London politics strangling success? Not necessarily. As any leader of a truly brilliant organisation will tell you, maintaining and improving standards cannot be achieved by staying the course. London schools need more innovation not less. Innovation that builds a critical mass of exceptional schools able to percolate brilliant practice around the close-knit ecology of London’s education.
Strategic leadership can support this. A reforming mayor, intent on spurring effective change and protecting schools from ineffective central government control, could provide that strategic leadership.
1. Give the Olympic park an educational vision so that it is a beacon of excellence.
The Queen Elizabeth II park is set to become one of the most exciting places in London, attracting museums, housing, businesses and universities. New schools and colleges will be needed too. They should be commissioned with the express purpose of eliding the age-old boundaries between work and education. The geographical contingency of such high quality employers and universities means you might actually get meaningful work experience for children, leading to meaningful projects and employment. You might also get proper links between sixth form learning and undergraduate learning. The mayor should appoint a high status director of education for the park and they should have the power to shape and deliver the vision.
2. Lobby central government for a London school’s commissioner.
At present there are three regional school commissioners covering the London area. Instead there should be one, independent but accountable to the mayor and headteacher boards. In common with the I-zone in New York, new schools should be commissioned in line with key priorities: closing the achievement gap, research based innovative practice, the capacity to improve the system around them. The commissioner should also oversee high quality further education and apprenticeships – this is an area which requires most London-wide organisation. The commissioner should have access to Transport for London and other London government land for schools should it be required.
3. Expand the London school’s excellence fund so that it stimulates school transformation.
The mayor currently oversees a £24m fund which schools can apply to support improving teacher standards. It should be expanded so that it also funds projects that seek to move individual or groups of schools from good to world class. Funding bids could include partners from abroad, academics and others who have thought deeply about teaching practice. This will generate a repository of reference sites for other schools to learn from.
4. Strengthen the role of local authorities as champions of fair admissions and vulnerable pupils.
The role of local authorities is changing, particularly as more and more secondaries become academies, obtaining independence of local authority control. Councils are still important. My experience as a councillor is that local authorities can be the strongest advocates for parents as they face the admissions bureaucracy of schools. They are also best placed to ensure children with special needs are looked after, are noticed and catered for by schools.
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