Why `ultra-loony' Ilea was actually ahead of its time

3rd April 2015 at 01:00
The opinion-dividing education authority was the last of its kind

The Inner London Education Authority was created and abolished on April Fool's Day - a fact that its opponents and supporters can all enjoy.

But that will probably be their only common ground as far as Ilea is concerned. Established 50 years ago this week, the country's last dedicated education authority was condemned in the Daily Mail as "bureaucratic", "spendthrift", a "bastion of trendy teaching" and "ultra-loony".

Those who mourn its abolition by the Thatcher government in 1990 have hailed the authority as "visionary", pointing to the training it offered teachers, its pioneering attempts to help underachieving groups and its groundbreaking use of data.

The authority's impact is undeniable; today, a quarter of a century later, some are still pondering whether it was wise to leave London without a body to take overall responsibility for its schools.

Self-confessed Thatcherite Ivan Massow is campaigning to win the Conservative candidature for next year's London mayoral election. But he believes his own party may have been guilty of "throwing out the baby with the bath water" as far as Ilea was concerned.

"Certainly some of the politics that we shouted down was in fact incredibly progressive," he says. "It was just before its time."

John Bangs, a former head of education for the NUT teaching union and a teacher-member of Ilea for the authority's final four years, agrees.

"There was a strategic approach to education in London," he says. "It meant there were all sorts of things available for teachers, some of which will never be replaced or matched.

"There was a teacher centre for every subject, centres of expertise where teachers could go to share best practice. Nothing like that exists now. There was also groundbreaking work on class, sex and race; Ilea research centre was extraordinary."

Today Mr Massow - who once shared a Mayfair flat with skills minister Nick Boles and former education secretary Michael Gove - believes that there is "definitely" a case for reviving a pan-London approach to education, and that relatively small borough councils may not be the most appropriate authorities to oversee schools.

The current Tory mayor has already moved in that direction. Boris Johnson may not have any formal powers over education but that did not stop him from commissioning a major inquiry into the challenges facing the capital's schools.

His deputy with responsibility for education, Munira Mirza, hailed the report when it was published in 2012, saying: "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."

However, Sir Tim Brighouse has claimed that the mayor set up his inquiry believing that London's education was a "basket case", because his advisers had failed to note the renaissance in London's schools over the previous decade.

The capital's success is now used as an example to governments around the world, although recent research from Bristol University suggests that it could be explained by London's high proportion of ethnic minority pupils.

Others put it down to Labour's London Challenge initiative (originally led by Sir Tim, who became the city's first schools commissioner in 2003), which allowed schools to collaborate.

Sir Mike Tomlinson, a former chief inspector for Ofsted, argues that the achievements of the London Challenge prove that an authority with formal responsibility is not needed. He is well placed to judge, having taken over from Sir Tim in 2007 to become the government's chief adviser for London schools.

He first came to the city as the government's HMI inspector for Ilea in 1982 and agrees that the authority had some good points, such as its teacher centres and music provision. He also agrees that some of the boroughs it left behind were too small to run education.

"But it also had extremely powerful union activists," adds Sir Mike, who also went on to run the Hackney Learning Trust. "And sadly, in my view, there were far too many schools that HMI regarded as not up to scratch.

"There was a lack of ambition, a lack of sufficiently high expectations and a tolerance across the system of poor teaching and poor leadership."

Mr Bangs acknowledges that some schools "were really in a bad way" under Ilea and that the authority was guilty of "some excesses" in the early 1980s. But he regards the success of the London Challenge as a reminder of what the capital lost when Ilea was abolished. In its last years, he says, the authority "really was at the edge of the game".

`It was an act of vandalism to close Ilea'

Alan Tuckett, professor of education at the University of Wolverhampton and a principal in Ilea in 1981-88, writes:

Twenty-five years ago this month, the Inner London Education Authority was closed in a fit of political pique by Margaret Thatcher's government. It came after the 1986 closure of the Greater London Council and the emphatic democratic endorsement of Ilea by the London voters it served. The closure was enacted after an amendment was sneaked in late to the Education Reform Bill's passage through Parliament. The price of this casual denial of local democracy has been paid by Londoners ever since.

Ilea had a spectacular record as a cradle-to-grave education authority. It pioneered early years provision, home-school liaison and access courses for mature students. It was a beacon of special needs provision; it supported a range of colleges and polytechnics not only with stable recurrent funding but with capital investment unmatched elsewhere in the country; and it had an unrivalled adult education service with a global reputation for quality, innovation and inclusiveness. It was supported in this work by high-quality and dedicated staff, officers and inspectors, and by its city politicians.

Of course, Ilea grappled with the challenges of linguistic and cultural diversity (as the principal site of migration to Britain) and with the consequences of divisive economic policies that left a large minority of workless families parked in short-cycle government training programmes. By contrast, Eric Briault's 1981 policy paper, An Education Service for the Whole Community, addressed Ilea's challenge, shared by so many other inner cities, of securing equal life chances for all its children and second chances for its adults. Improving Secondary Schools, issued by Ilea's last chief inspector, David Hargreaves, focused on the full range of capabilities and achievements - practical, intellectual, emotional and social - to be fostered in its children.

So, what followed its closure? The series of successor authorities were unable to attract the same depth and quality of leadership. Rich boroughs thrived and poverty in the poorer parts of London was reinforced, despite the best efforts of staff. My area of work - adult education - suffered spectacular cuts. Colleges and polytechnics were soon detached from local government as we began the long haul of frenetic legislative and regulatory change that has centralised power, hollowed out local democracy and left us as a nation increasingly unequal, with low productivity and an unstable education system that is not fit for purpose.

All the international evidence confirms that it is at the level of the city that innovation, creativity and cross-sector cooperation are best achieved. Ilea had all that and it was an act of vandalism to close it.

A short history

  • Ilea covered the City of London and the inner boroughs: Camden, Greenwich, Hackney, Hammersmith and Fulham, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth, and Westminster.
  • It was formed on 1 April 1965 as a special committee of the Greater London Council, established at the same time.
  • It began with a large Labour majority. The Conservatives had control in 1967-70, but Labour enjoyed a majority for the rest of Ilea's history.
  • When the GLC was abolished in 1986, Ilea continued for a further four years with 58 directly elected members, as a standalone body.

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