Ten years ago Labour councillors in the capital were prepared to fight to the last car sticker to save the Inner London Education Authority, the jewel in the party's municipal crown.
Now they would crowd into the corridors of power and use every political threat to crush any attempt to bring back ILEA or anything like it. Whether or not Margaret Thatcher drove socialism into permanent exile, in 1990 she destroyed the political base for a unified school system in London. Whatever educators or parents may think, Labour's politicians in the 13 inner London boroughs - the erstwhile champions of ILEA - are now determined to go on grappling bravely with the problems of running very small education authorities whose boundaries have nothing to do with the location of schools or the needs of the capital's children. Like their colleagues in the 20 outer boroughs, most of them bigger and longer established as local education authorities, the more local government is stripped of other powers and tasks, the more they prize their education fiefs.
In their forum, the Association of London Government, the borough leaders strongly support the Labour Government's proposal for a strategic authority for Greater London.
The Government's plans for a strategic authority for the capital will be set out in a London Referendum Bill to be presented to the Commons later this year. Further legislation is due to be introduced in the summer of 1998 to establish an authority and permit the election of a city mayor. Elections are expected to take place in May 2000.
The Government envisages that the new authority will take responsibility for issues with a London-wide dimension such as economic regeneration, planning, policing, transport and environment protection.
Leading Local Government Association members, like Graham Lane, who is education chairman of the association as well as of Newham council, also talk of the proposed authority having a strategic role in the planning and co-ordination of the capital's education and training for both the outer and inner boroughs. But no one quite wants to spell out what this might mean - except to insist that it cannot include the actual delivery of services.
The question is what, if anything, a new London government could do within these constraints to tackle the education problems which face the boroughs, and the obvious shortcomings in what they provide. Among the main priorities are: * support services, youth work, and provision for the arts and sport; * planning and co-ordination of 16-plus provision and adult education, and of school places; * teacher recruitment and retention; * funding.
Ask most of London's veteran teachers what they miss most from the ILEA era and - after the obligatory jokes about County Hall bureaucracy - they will name support services. They range from ILEA's wealth of specialist advisers and in-service training facilities to the media resources unit, from expert help with behavioural problems to theatre groups and peripatetic music instructors. Most of the boroughs provide some of these services, no borough supplies all.
Westminster - keenest practitioner of the Tory belief in lean town halls - no longer has even an inspectorate, leaving it to the schools to buy in advisory services.
Nevertheless, the boroughs are unlikely to let anyone else take responsibility for the range of services ILEA provided. Possible exceptions are the arts and sports, where the boroughs find it hard to offer as much as they would like.
Many of ILEA's superb facilities for young musicians survive as independent institutions, in particular the Centre for Young Musicians, which has helped to develop many of Britain's most talented instrumentalists. But they are no longer free to everyone, and boroughs vary in the extent to which they subsidise fees. The Foundation for Young Musicians, which now runs the CYM and has set up local centres in six boroughs, provides bursaries to ensure that everyone who auditions successfully gets a place.
The London Schools Symphony Orchestra, which plays all over the world, was for a time sponsored by London Electricity, and is now supported by the City of London corporation. Christopher Crowcroft, the foundation's secretary, says that many organisations are providing musical activities for schools and young people, but that there is no overall strategy or co-ordination.
The same applies to the youth service. Since the boroughs took over there has been a real-terms cut of more than 15 per cent in total expenditure, with wide variations between the authorities.
Yet while youth work nearly always suffers most in education cuts, borough politicians appear to value it highly and would probably fiercely resist any encroachment.
However, all bets could be off if the Government decides that youth work, already increasingly involved in training and life skills projects for the unemployed, has an important part to play in its Welfare to Work scheme. The boroughs might then have to accept that youth work had to come within a regional framework of all post-16 education and training.
Similar considerations apply to adult education, once ILEA's pride, now all but extinct in some parts of the metropolis.
The boroughs could hardly object to any intervention by a London government into careers work, since they no longer are responsible for the careers service. This is provided throughout the capital by nine independent contractors, funded directly by the Department for Education and Employment.
It is in the strategic planning of post 16-education and training, however, that the new authority will be positively welcome. The boroughs have already created an organisation to do the spadework, the Further Education London Region Services.
Similarly, the boroughs increasingly see some need for overall planning of school places. With London's five to 18 population set to increase at twice the national rate over the next seven years, the authorities need to know where to extend existing schools or build new ones. The Funding Agency for Schools has already drawn attention to the need to co-ordinate planning, since a very high proportion of London pupils attend schools outside their own boroughs.
But the one role in which the borough politicians want a new authority to be as tough and interventionist as possible is as an advocate for London's special funding needs.
Margaret Thatcher's main justification for killing off ILEA was that it was the country's highest-spending authority; and she and her successor (albeit a Brixton lad) refused to accept that the new London LEAs needed to spend much more than the rest of the country. A new London government could honour the past and serve the present by persuading the Prime Minister to end the vendetta against the capital city's schoolchildren.
THE GREATER LONDON EDUCATION GUIDE
The place: Greater London is a conurbation of 610 square miles surrounding the City of London The people: more than 7 million The pupils: 5-18 population, 1.2m The providers: 33 local education authorities (12 inner London boroughs and the City of London which have replaced ILEA, and 20 outer boroughs) The professionals: 48,500 teachers - nearly half of them primary, the rest in secondary and special schools The price: Pounds 3.033 billion in 199697 The problems: all the ones that Britain's big cities share plus sky-high housing and transport costs, the burden of coping with refugees, work-seekers, the homeless, drifters, and an assortment of other incomers, transient and stayers, from other parts of Britain and almost everywhere else in the world. A rapidlyrising child population. An inability to retain teachers. An abundance offee-charging grammar schools which enable the middle class to scorn the comprehensives. Fragmented responsibility for a formerly unified school system which had been designed or had evolved to handle many of these problems.