Skip to main content

Halt the blitz on London

The latest scheme to attack 'failure' in the capital's schools is heavy-handed and will not succeed, says June Izbicki.

Being an eternal optimist, I read the latest government proposals for "the most radical reform in the capital's schools since the Second World War" with some eagerness.

Indeed, some of the details are steps in the right direction. A pound;90,000 mortgage subsidy for teachers who stay in London would tempt many young teachers who currently move out when they start a family. These are the managers of the future, and it is crucial to keep them if London schools are to come up to the standards of the best - the initiative's proclaimed aim.

But the euphoria was quickly punctured. The scheme is for "high quality" teachers. So, as with previous failed initiatives such as "fast track" and "advanced skills teacher" status, this one is unacceptably divisive.

Teachers work best in teams, with NQTs learning from experienced team-mates, middle managers honing skills by working with others ready to move on to senior management, and senior managers learning from effective heads and deputies. Anything that throws a spanner in these works is destined to fail.

Many of London's struggling schools are staffed by a few experienced teachers and managers, many of whom will retire in the next five years, and an army of supply teachers of varying quality. Some I have worked with have been as good as any "high quality" permanent teacher and shown total commitment; others have turned up with a newspaper and spent the day with their feet up reading it.

The language used in some of the Government's diktat-like statements also worries me: "a relentless drive to root out failure"; "a relentless focus on all forms of indiscipline in school"; "weak heads to be removed". Is Education Secretary Charles Clarke not aware of the dire shortage of teachers willing to lead these "failing" schools? Putting such schools under the part-time leadership of a nearby "successful" school has been tried with very limited success.

I watched one Islington head struggle to rescue a "fresh start" school. He gave up after two terms - not because he wasn't up to the job, but because only a real "superhead" could be. And they simply do not exist.

The head in question had been hired to replace Torsten Friedag, the "superhead" featured in the BBC's New Head on The Block programme. Mr Friedag had been called in as part of the "fresh start" policy to turn round Islington's George Orwell school, which reopened under the new name of the Islington arts and media school.

He failed for many reasons - partly because of his high-profile appointment which made him feel he had to do something amazing. Starting the school without a timetable, not allowing teachers a staffroom, or even their own lavatories, was amazing. Thus, he was largely the architect of his own failure.

I was called into the school as a consultant shortly before Mr Friedag's departure. The staff were working under some of the worst conditions I had ever seen in a secondary school, and I was amazed that they were still there. But that was a measure of their commitment to their pupils. It is that quality which needs to be nurtured in our "failing" London schools.

Will a "relentless focus" achieve that?

Islington is one of the five lowest-performing London boroughs singled out for special Government attention. But much of this radicalism is simply old ideas with new labels. Earlier initiatives, Excellence in Cities and City Academy status, were all about running schools in partnership with local business, and London is now promised more of the same. What is new is a minister and a commissioner with responsibility for London schools. So the Government really is worried.

The new commissioner,Tim Brighouse, is a great ideas man and has lots of the right experience, but where is the infrastructure to drive through the new policies at ground level?

One solution would be to bring back the old Inner London Education Authority. But if the Government is not prepared to do that, it should be aware that keeping good teachers in London's classrooms is the key to improvement.

The threshold payments were the latest in a long line of attempts to solve this problem, which has been with us for decades. Let's not fail London children yet again by being divisive and penny-pinching.

June Izbicki works as an education consultant

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you