Impossible challenge?

16th May 2003 at 01:00
If there is anyone with nostalgia for the Blunkett years of pugnacious spin, they will have enjoyed the publication this week of The London Challenge, the strategy to transform the capital's secondaries.

On the face of it, its "radical reforms" amount to more pressure on "failing" schools and those who keep them going; new websites to name and shame, 50 "fresh schools" (a new twist on Fresh Start schools); and a new "gifted and talented centre". Singling out for special attention the authorities where New Labour's privatisation experiments conspicuously stalled seems an odd own goal. But the talk is tough and presumably aimed at aspirant parents. In the capital they are far more likely to abandon the maintained system for the private.

If anything is "radical" about the document, it is the implication running through it that central government now controls London's schools. Simply by asserting that new schools and sixth forms will be created; that existing schools will stay open late, federate, close or offer extended family services; that heads will be removed; and that every school will specialise and crack down on discipline, the report strives to give that impression.

Yet ministers lack statutory powers to guarantee any of these things: they must rely upon the co-operation - or capitulation - of 33 separate authorities and 411 schools. So the promise to build 50 contentious new schools within five years is rather rash.

Professor Tim Brighouse's presence as the commissioner for London schools is meant to encourage collaboration and reassure the professionals. Any new support and inspiration that makes teaching in London attractive again is welcome. But Brighouse's big idea, "collegiates", is not allowed an airing lest it frighten the voters.

What he must know, but was not allowed to say at the launch is that, in the real world beyond spin, the continuous and universal improvement the Government expects is simply not sustainable in a competitive system.

Compelling evidence for that was set out elsewhere this week by his colleague, Professor Barbara MacGilchrist, in her lecture at the Institute of Education in London (see page 8).

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