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Editorial: Let's unpack these visionary ideas

Type Ilea into Google and you are asked: "Did you mean Ikea?"

That's a sad and ignominious digital legacy for the Inner London Education Authority, an organisation that once aroused strong passions in both its supporters and its detractors; that was either "visionary" or "ultra-loony", depending on your politics.

The country's last dedicated education authority was set up as a special committee of the Greater London Council 50 years ago and closed down 25 years later, a bitter and high-profile focal point for age-old hostilities between Left and Right. Its abolition, in a last-minute addition to the 1988 Education Reform Bill, was described at the time by former TES editor Stuart Maclure as "an act of educational vandalism".

What Ilea gave the capital was a strategic approach to its schools, plus local policymaking, collaboration and an impressive collection of educational resources. There were access courses for mature students, an adult education service, early-years provision, a schools broadcasting service and free instrument teaching in schools, as well as first-class special educational needs provision. It offered training to teachers and centres where they could share best practice; it demonstrated groundbreaking use of data and made pioneering attempts to help underachieving groups.

Much was made of the supposed left-wing radicalism in its schools by The Sun and the Daily Mail, with the teaching of sexuality a particular target; Brent and Haringey were identified as areas in which "children were educated in the lesbian way of life". One MP saw the book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, about two gay men and their daughter, in an Ilea teachers' centre and this was soon whipped up as being in all schools across the authority, such was the animosity of the right-wing press.

For its supporters, such as Alan Tuckett, a principal in Ilea at the time, it had "a spectacular record as a cradle-to-grave education authority". It is at city level, he says, that "innovation, creativity and cross-sector cooperation are best achieved". Ilea's unremitting focus on schools had never been seen before and is likely never to be seen again.

For its detractors, it was run by the "loony Left", with powerful union activists and a bureaucracy that was cumbersome and inefficient. And despite all its spending, teaching and leadership could be poor and far too many schools were "not up to scratch", according to Sir Mike Tomlinson, the government's HMI inspector for Ilea in the 1980s.

Now, 25 years after Ilea's demise, there are doubts on the Right as well as the Left about abolishing the umbrella body for education in the capital. "Some of the politics we shouted down was in fact incredibly progressive. It was just before its time," says Conservative mayoral candidate Ivan Massow, who believes there is a case for bringing back a cross-London approach to education, a direction the current mayor has already signalled.

Whatever happens, the capital has since found educational success with the London Challenge, a collaborative system that builds, one would like to think, on all the best bits of Ilea - a flat-pack education assembly, this time with no screws loose.

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