Apart from an unusual and infectious sense of humour, Boris Johnson has two useful qualifications for an ambitious politician on the make: he is clever and, more importantly, lucky.
Consider: last year the London mayor set up an inquiry under Dr Tony Sewell because he believed London's schooling system was a basket case. His advisers hadn't done their homework, so they didn't know until the commission was well under way that London's schools had recently transformed to the point where not only is the region the best performing in the nation but London is also the only capital city in the developed world where pupil performance exceeds that of the rest of the country.
The evidence the inquiry was forced to consider was overwhelming - and, for people like the mayor, puzzling. After all, ever since the notorious cases of Risinghill School in the 1960s and William Tyndale primary a few years later, London schools in the public consciousness have been synonymous with a kind of blackboard jungle that is best avoided if at all possible. Indeed, this led Margaret Thatcher to abolish the Inner London Education Authority and Tony Blair to establish the London Challenge in 2003. Presumably nobody in Team Boris had noticed, let alone read, the two Ofsted reports and other independent research pointing to London's transformation.
So what did the mayor do when he realised that London had become an exemplar of successful urban schooling? First, he rightly suggested that more could be achieved and that being the best didn't absolve schools from trying harder. Then he distributed grudging credit for the turnaround, even if some of it was misdirected and wrongly weighted. Of course Teach First had helped to solve the staffing problem and the fledgling academies programme had helped a few of the most struggling schools to access more resources and shake off their reputations. But the lion's share of the credit must go to the increased numbers of good and committed teachers, and to better school leadership. That came about through the London Challenge enabling schools to learn from each other and use data expertly.
The London Challenge articulated a vision of what schooling could, should and would be like based on a moral purpose that brooked no denial. Staff rallied to the cause. None of the 32 London boroughs objected, partly because they could see that the extra resources and expertise were bringing results. No wonder the schools improved so dramatically.
Hidden among the many sensible recommendations of the Sewell report is one vital to continuing improvement: the need for a strategic body for education in the capital. When the first phase of the London Challenge was coming to an end in 2007, I argued for its pan-London responsibilities to be handed to the mayor and the Greater London Authority (GLA). In fact, wiser counsels prevailed and the second four-year phase took off, achieving for primary schools what the first phase had for secondaries. That, however, finished last year and now nobody takes a pan-London view. If nothing is done it will be sooner rather than later that we see staff shortages, increasing numbers of isolated, struggling schools and an acute shortage of primary places.
What we need next is legislation to give the mayor and the GLA pan-London strategic powers, such as:
- planning and financing of school places;
- providing a research and statistics function, including sustaining a "family of schools" set of comparative results, enabling schools to learn from each other;
- enabling inter-borough special educational needs planning of places and support services;
- taking over the running of school budgets from the education secretary and the Skills Funding Agency - no national formula will ever fit London's needs;
- resourcing a careers service and facilitating an adequate youth service with the boroughs;
- securing a school improvement service - this is too important to leave to the market and 2,500-plus schools;
- running a five-yearly independent review of progress in London, including comparisons with other world capitals and metropolitan regions in this country.
Where London leads, let others follow. The recent Heseltine report on the need for city regional economic development is right and education is inextricably linked to economic and social well-being, as Boris Johnson realises. So what is created in London needs to be copied in the Midlands based on Birmingham, and the same method applied in Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Tyneside and West and South Yorkshire. To do otherwise is to reinforce a divided North and South.
Tim Brighouse is a visiting professor at the Institute of Education, University of London.