Six months out from the general election and his likely return to the House of Commons as member of parliament for Uxbridge, the mayor of London’s education conference at City Hall provided the perfect opportunity for Boris Johnson to set out his vision for school provision in London and beyond, and perhaps give an insight into his educational philosophy and thinking on how the mayoral role in this important area might develop in future. Even the Times had trailed his ‘keynote’ speech, presumably on the basis that Johnson might say something important.
It was a promising start as the mayor identified the most important issue in London as being how to improve the education of ‘our kids’; then followed a brief assessment of the challenge that population growth was causing for school places – 94,000 new primary and 86,000 new secondary school places needed in London by 2022 – an acknowledgement that there are problems with the way the education system and labour markets interact; praise for the continued achievement of London’s schools; a nod to mayoral initiatives on music in schools and his Gold Club; the results of a hasty survey of some children he had met that morning and finally a thank you to all those involved in education for their work.
But where were his thoughts on how to improve the education of ‘our kids’? How did he want to take forward this most important issue in London? I listened carefully, but if he did share any wisdom on these issues it passed me by.
It was only as the mayor answered questions that he began to say anything of interest – encouraging the headteachers in the room to think about academic selection and perhaps adopting his experience of the 1970s Eton model of ranking every year group academically from one to 240 as a means of fostering healthy competition: ‘an inevitable and beneficial utensil of education’.
But while he did not support the return of the 11-plus, the mayor struggled to articulate a vision for how a Johnson-run education world might appear, and did not appear to have given the subject much real consideration.
Labour in London has moved a long way over the past decade. No serious Labour politician in the capital would now seek to excuse poor performance of any school or pupil on the basis of their socioeconomic backgrounds. The impact of London Challenge, with London still clearly leading the national league tables for GCSE and A-levels, and the practical example of many schools producing outstanding results with their pupils has put an end to any argument that young Londoners’ educational prospects are predestined to be poor.
While the fragmented schools landscape and demonstrably poor accountability of education providers demands some clear restructuring; and with the need for vocational qualifications to be given greater parity with academic qualifications in order to incentivise schools to concentrate on job outcomes as much as university entrance, there is work for a future Labour government to do.
But if Tristram Hunt is looking for any help in this regard he can safely bypass the education policy-free zone of City Hall.
Peter John is leader of the London borough of Southwark and London Councils’ executive member for children, skills and employment. He tweets @peterjohn6
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