An eye on the capital

7th May 2004 at 01:00
Tim Brighouse is determined to put the capital back on the map for teachers and echo the glory days of ILEA. Fiona Flynn talks to him about the Chartered London Teacher scheme and his vision for the city

There are three things most of us think we know about London schools. One, you can always get a teaching job; two, you can't afford to live there on a teacher's salary; three, the schools are hardcore.

London schools have a reputation - new children arrive continuously, maybe distressed and disorientated refugees, sometimes illiterate and often transitory. Teaching staff are frequently foreign, temporary and sometimes under-qualified. And if you're a parent, let's not even talk about school admissions.

Truancy is twice the national average, as is the number of families who've abandoned the state system for private schools. Academic achievement is lower than anywhere else in the country and there are twice as many teaching vacancies as anywhere else.

In short, education in London, especially in the eyes of the press, is in crisis. But take a walk along the South Bank, or across Tower Bridge, or into any of our national museums on any day of the week, and you'll wade through a huge number of pupils on school trips, all of them getting a taste of just what an extraordinary cultural powerhouse the capital city is.

Professor Tim Brighouse, famous for his hugely successful turnaround of Birmingham schools, was recruited out of retirement last year to be London's commissioner for schools and to sort things out.

So what's his big plan?

The most important thing, he says, is to "crack the correlation between socio-economic disadvantage and educational failure so that other people look at London and say, 'Wow, what are they doing in London schools?'"

There are two things we've got going for us in London, he says: the first government since the Victorians to promise to surround London children in magnificent new or refurbished buildings and - another first - politicians, economists and educationists in agreement on the importance of education.

"When I started out, we were still in a service and industrial age in which we needed people to work in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs," he says. But skills needs have changed since then - and so provision for learning must change also. The change needed is huge and he knows how ambitious his plans are.

"Unless we do it on a scale that everybody else in the rest of the world notices, then we won't have succeeded," he says.

But we have poverty all over the UK, so what's different about London?

"In London we have high proportions of poverty and a high degree of wealth.

The wear and tear in the capital, travel, housing costs and so on make it that much more intense for people who live and work here."

But Tim Brighouse is optimistic. In the past year, he has visited between five and seven schools per week and he spends time in each of them - in classrooms and staffrooms.

Just before we meet at the London Eye, he's been talking to 500 staff - "all school staff, not just the teachers" - from a consortium of schools in south- east London.

"I'd say that well over half of those I've seen are highly successful, high-achieving - the sort of schools where you could walk out of the classroom and the kids will get on with their work. I don't think everybody realises that," he says.

"Then there are schools that have a tenuous hold over the achievement culture. For example, they might take high proportions of kids whose level on entry is below or on level 3, or who have high degrees of poverty.

They're the schools working flat out to try to establish that achievement culture.

"And then there are a tiny number over a very large urban area that need an extraordinary leadership of an intense and vigorous nature.

"To my delight, the number of teachers, when you ask them do they enjoy teaching, they say, 'Of course I do - I love it, I just love it!' I've found that really heartening."

But will that love of the job be enough to cut it in the classroom?

"I'm not being romantic, but what London needs is teachers who can convince children to suspend their own disbelief - teachers who not only really care about children but care about the person each of those children can become."

So how is he going to persuade teachers that being a London teacher is special? I'd asked many experienced teachers what it was like working in the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), which ran schools in the 13 central boroughs from 1965 to 1990. Every one of them said it had been a fantastic experience. So why does he think it worked so well?

"Under ILEA, every teacher felt that if you're going to be at the leading edge of teaching, you've got to do your time in London. If, for example, you're a young science teacher, in ILEA's time you knew that you were where it was at in terms of development of that subject, by being in London. And you got that in every subject area."

So cutting-edge subject knowledge is vital in attracting the best of the profession. And while Professor Brighouse has no intention of re-creating the mammoth ILEA, he does want to pool the best professional expertise, across the boroughs, so every subject teacher has access to it. He also wants to make the most of the capital's special characteristics to attract the most dynamic teachers.

The Chartered London Teacher scheme is a big feature of the London Challenge. But is it just a new label?

"To be a Chartered London Teacher, to succeed as a teacher in London, you need more of the skill, expertise and knowledge than you would need in a more favourable, more settled, more certain community," he says.

Improving knowledge and appreciation of the diverse range of cultures in London is vital to good teaching, he says: "You've got to know how to get into pupils' minds. You'll need more energy, more knowledge, but you're going to learn more by being in London."

What about the capital as an attraction for new teachers?

"The London Challenge offers an amazing chance to young, aspiring teachers," he says. "We've got common wealth in London, whether it's museums, art galleries, the ballet, arts, drama, absolutely everything - and to a degree that's unrivalled. It's the capital city, and it's a capital with an extraordinary history."

If you're moving to London this September, we'd like to hear from you.

Email and you could win a Make-the-most-of-London kit, and a free trip on the London Eye, theatre tickets and 'Time Out'

guides. For full details, see


* If you're a newly qualified teacher starting this September, you can achieve Chartered London Teacher(CLT) status after five years working in the capital and qualify for extra cash on top of London weighting to encourage you to stay. CLT status must be worked for, though, and it's not an automatic qualification.

* More experienced teachers will be able to achieve CLT status over a shorter period.

* Housing problems? More teachers have benefited from the starter home initiative (interest free loans, part-rentpart-buy schemes) than any other group of key workers (teachers, nurses, police officers).

* In the longer term, if you commit to a career as a potential school leader in the capital, you could qualify for a mortgage subsidy towards buying a family home. The London Challenge is currently in talks with the Deputy Prime Minister's office.

For more on London Challenge, see

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