Let's bring London into a golden age

19th October 2012 at 01:00
Raise aspirations and mine the capital's rich resources, says deputy mayor Munira Mirza

This week, the Mayor of London's Education Inquiry publishes its report. For the first time since the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority, the challenges facing the capital's schools are being addressed by the strategic body that runs London.

The report begins by celebrating the progress made by London schools over the past decade. A range of interventions, notably the London Challenge, Teach First and the growth of academies, have transformed the city's schools from the lowest performing in the UK to the highest. Significantly, children on free school meals also do better than those in the rest of the country.

Yet the report also acknowledges that too many young people are still leaving school without the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in life. In 2011, 28,000 pupils did not achieve five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths. One in five left primary schools without expected levels in literacy and numeracy. Employers complain that young Londoners often lack the capacity and drive to get the new jobs being created here.

In some parts of the city this underperformance is entrenched and needs to be challenged more assertively. This cannot be left to local authorities alone. Academies and free schools are often leading the way, with more autonomous headteachers providing creative solutions and impressive results.

The title of the report, Going for Gold, also points to the fact that a successful school system should aim higher than the minimum floor target for its children. We need to stretch those in the middle and at the top. Not enough attention is paid to helping young people achieve A*s and As, and giving them a chance at top-level apprenticeships and university places. For a long time, the pressure of league tables and the introduction of new vocationally related "equivalencies" discouraged schools from investing their resources into teaching core subjects, such as foreign languages and STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). To get the much-needed C grades, schools have prioritised easier but less valuable courses.

It is often children in disadvantaged areas that suffer from this culture of low expectations. Yet good-quality teaching and aspiration should benefit everyone, not just the privileged few. The English Baccalaureate means that schools can no longer duck the responsibility of teaching core subjects to all their students, and must give them a good grounding for the future - whether it is an academic or vocational pathway.

The report recommends a series of measures to support better teaching, among them a "Gold Club" of schools that "buck the trend" and achieve excellence for pupils, regardless of their background. Along with teaching ols, this club can share success with others, giving teachers a chance to observe lessons and pool materials. A new London Schools Excellence Fund, to target priority areas such as literacy, numeracy and STEM, is being created. Good teaching needs challenge, but also peer-led support, time out of the classroom and immersion in subject knowledge. Despite the many university-led teacher training courses, the teaching profession suffers from a lack of intellectual nourishment and we need to find ways to restore this.

Another innovation is the idea of a "London Curriculum", using the city's world-class assets to supplement the teaching of the core national curriculum. We think every London child should, like taxi drivers, possess the "knowledge" of the city, whether it's the history of Tudor England, epitomised by Hampton Court, or examples of modern engineering, such as the Thames Barrier. Crucially, this is about providing valuable knowledge to children, not just "learning to learn".

Finally, the report devotes a section to the crisis in school places created by London's rapidly growing population. By 2016 we will need another 90,000 places in London's primary and secondary schools. The government has prudently doubled the funding for basic need to try to address this shortage. It is important to think outside the box. For example, we should encourage more free schools, both as a way of harnessing the energy of teachers and parents to create additional provision and as a way of raising standards. Expanding existing schools that perform poorly is not the answer. That is why the mayor is setting up a new unit to work with local councils and the Department for Education to enable free school groups to set up and, crucially, to find sites in the capital's highly competitive property market.

Taken together, these measures have the potential to really improve London's school system and get us from good to great.

Munira Mirza is deputy mayor for education and culture.

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