Capital's caped crusaders

London's very own minister and tsar for education must unite the boroughs in a joint strategy, says John Bangs.

welve years on from the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), Education Secretary Estelle Morris has appointed Stephen Twigg as minister for London's education and intends to appoint an accompanying schools commissioner, or tsar.

The obvious question is why? What is behind the "London Challenge" speech she gave on July 1? I suspect that quite simply, Estelle Morris has begun to understand that the capital simply does not have a strategy for its education service. Indeed, I believe that the incapacity of London boroughs to have a single voice has made London's teacher shortage crisis even worse. This is not a criticism of individual authorities. There are many good things going on and the Office for Standards in Education confirms this. But, currently, London's boroughs are not pulling their weight collectively. They are neither putting real pressure on the Government to solve the teacher shortage crisis nor utilising their resources collectively to help teachers in the classroom.

Ten years ago, in Education in the Capital, edited by Michael Barber - now Prime Minister Tony Blair's key adviser on delivering improved public services - Professor Tim Brighouse recollected that, under the ILEA, London teachers' commitment "was kept perpetually alive by easy access to the best network of teachers' centres in the whole country". It is incomprehensible that such a network should have remained in ruins, and it is to be hoped that Barber and Brighouse, who both have the ear of government ministers, will be giving wise counsel in the months ahead.

This is just one of the cross-London issues that the new education minister for the capital and his tsar must address. Others on the list include:

* London boroughs should be required to put together collectively a recruitment and retention strategy. It is tough living in the capital if you are new to London. Affordable housing should be made available and a network of centres for teachers which can provide advice, opportunities for professional development, and a social base, should be re-established. This strategy should extend to teacher training as evidence shows teachers who train in London stay in London.

* Admissions procedures in the capital are a mess following the Greenwich judgment which gave parents the right to send their children to schools outside the borough in which they live. Estelle Morris's 25 proposed city academies will simply compound the problem, sucking in parental preferences away from other schools. There needs to be a strategy for secondary schools across London focusing, not on the expansion of academies and specialist schools, but on setting up city learning centres which are equally available to every school. Beyond that, the merits of banding for secondary places must be reconsidered.

* There is a need for an all-London special education strategy. Special education provision is erratic. Support for children with behavioural difficulties needs proper planning. And disability access should be planned across boroughs. Making secondary schools accessible is expensive and should be planned for collectively.

* With over 200 languages spoken in London and the need to provide for children of asylum seekers and refugees, there is surely quality specialist support for schools which boroughs can provide collectively.

* While it existed, the Inner London Tertiary Education Board started to solve the problems of securing course distribution, cutting down on student travel times and putting together a genuinely wide offer. The Learning and Skills Council behemoths in London certainly require a matching capital-wide strategy to both propose and protect provision.

* The loss of the ILEA's research and statistics branch with its enormous resources and freedom from commercial pressure was not only a setback for London but for work on school improvement nationally and internationally. The seminal reports by David Hargreaves and John Fish, for example, still have a lasting echo on secondary and special education policies. London needs a centre which manages information, provides a data resource base and generates answers to questions such as '"What kind of new school should be built for high-density housing?".

It would take an act of considerable political courage for a government to recreate something like the ILEA. At least the London boroughs should take the first step by setting up a joint committee. And there is much, much more that needs examining. The debate for London's education should start now.

John Bangs is the NUT's assistant secretary. He worked in Tower Hamlets for 20 years and was the teacher member for special education at the ILEA

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