Amidst all the excitement about Gove’s possible changes to the GCSE system, there was very little comment on the latest idea from Boris Johnson to take control of education in the capital.
This offers Labour a difficult conundrum: on the one hand, moving education powers from the London boroughs into the hands of the Mayor enormously expands the scope of an individual Tory politician’s power over London’s schools, at a time when the majority of them are presently in Labour’s hands because Labour controls the majority of councils in London; on the other hand, there is a significant attraction in bringing London’s schools into a single system of oversight with common lines of communication between schools and the most widely-recognised political figure in the city.
Until the late 1980s, there existed an Inner London Education Authority with significant powers over schools (although its remit did not cover the same geographic area of the present Greater London Authority); ILEA was disbanded by Thatcher for allegedly being a bastion of left-wing educational practice at the same time as the Ken Livingstone-run GLC, and as a result London education was devolved to the boroughs. This creates very perverse situations where schools on the borders of boroughs are administered by one council, whilst the majority of their students live in a different one. There are significant funding differentials between boroughs with very similar needs. Then there’s the amount of local bureaucracies involved: there are 32 separate ones in London to manage the schools.
This is in stark contrast to England’s second largest city, Birmingham, which is a single educational unit and – until Gove’s 2010 Act precipitated a swath of new academies – was the largest employer in British education.
Clearly, the new landscape of academies and free schools is weakening the position of local authorities such as the London boroughs to administer education in their area. Stephen Twigg has spoken a great deal about the need for a “middle tier” between the new breed of academies and the Department for Education.
Could the Mayor’s Office be that “middle tier” in London? And if so, what role will the London Assembly play in this system? And if the powers Boris acquires go beyond those presently given to local authorities, will they be rolled out to other parts of England with directly-elected mayors?
Boris’s big idea may prove to be a very good one, but Labour needs to engage thoughtfully to ensure the system is built to last.
John Blake is a comprehensive school teacher in London and chair of Labour Teachers