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'ILEA planted a passion in me'

The authority is still revered by many who worked for it. Alison Shepherd reports

The welcome demise of a tyrant, or an act of political vandalism from which London pupils still suffer. Either way, there is little doubt that when the Tories abolished the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) in 1990, it left a hole in the heart of the capital which has yet to be filled.

The 1988 Education Reform Act shut down England's largest education authority and ended 120 years of pan-London education, dividing the spoils among 13 boroughs, most of them ill-equipped to deal with their new responsibilities.

The capital would look very different if ILEA had not been created. Many of today's leading educationists and policy-makers began their careers in either its classrooms or its County Hall headquarters.

Professor David Hargreaves, ex-chief of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, as well as education minister Baroness Blackstone, foreign secretary Jack Straw, and Professor Tim Brighouse, the London schools commissioner, all spent time working in Ilea.

Jon Davison of London University's Institute of Education, says: "Cut any of us across the middle and it still says Ilea - it made us what we are.

Without that formative experience, we would not be here today."

Mr Davison began his career in the 1960s as a probationary English teacher in Greenwich, south London. Among the many things he believes the authority got right was how it treated its newly qualified teachers.

Probationers used to spend a half-day a week in the local teacher centre to discuss local issues with advisers and other new teachers. Another half-day was spent with teachers from across London in one of Ilea's subject centres.

"We had immediate access to best practice across the capital," he says.

"Contact with current research and thinking did so much for our self-esteem. We worked directly with the names in our subject. The things we worked on as probationers eventually became curriculum texts across London, then across the country, and eventually the English-speaking world.

It was wonderful, so exciting."

This level of reflection, he believes, was a huge loss when Ilea's functions were handed over to the boroughs, a problem compounded by the arrival in 1992 of the Teacher Training Agency and its system of competencies for teachers.

"The emphasis now is very much on the delivery of the national curriculum, which is a very interesting choice of word," he says. "Teachers are supposed to pass on established knowledge to pupils with no, or very little, access to historical, reflective or critical thought. So when teachers have delivered the curriculum for a couple of years, they get to thinking, 'Is this all there is for the next 30 years?' They have nowhere else to go, and they leave teaching.

"Those Ilea teacher centres planted a passion in me, and I'd like modern NQTs to have the same advantage - for someone to plant that seed and for it to flower later on; when, after a couple of years' teaching, something clicks in the back of your head and you think, 'That's what they were going on about'."

But Mr Davison is not totally dewy-eyed about the fallen giant. He recognises that Ilea had faults, as in any huge bureaucratic machine. He does not believe that anything like it is likely again, but he does want to see a return to the positives.

"There is a linguistic and cultural richness in London that has excited me through all my 30 years," he says. "I want new teachers to feel that excitement - that sense of being a London teacher right from the start."

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