Boris and our SchoolsPosted: October 22, 2012
The report of the London Mayor’s Education Inquiry is a curious mix. It can’t avoid admitting that London schools represent a quite remarkable success story over the last ten years though it can’t resist a bit of carping when the opportunity arises. But there is a lot of useful analysis of the issues that face London’s schools. These include
- the challenges of a changing labour market with fewer opportunities for low achieving pupils,
- the need to raise standards for underachieving groups, especially among many white British pupils,
- the crisis in school places
- the broad range of skills and attitudes that young people need and that employers say are often missing,
- the need for young people to have better information about the opportunities and pathways available.
Nor is it entirely wrong to insist that there is no room for complacency and that London is indeed competing in a world market.
In some respects the report makes the case for a proper middle tier supporting education. The need for detailed demographic work to underpin place planning for example is apparent. Developing links with major employers on a city wide basis is clearly sensible and is not something individual schools could do. Exploring how the curriculum could draw on the resources London has to offer as a whole also makes good sense and would need co-ordination. There is much else in the report which is of value and which supports the need for a local tier of management.
However the real problem with the report is when ideology takes over from analysis and research. The tone is set right at the start. The cover picture is of West London Free School pupils sitting in silent rows reading short Latin stories (indeed all the pictures are from WLFS!). This represents a deeply depressing vision of contemporary London. An educational vision drawn straight from Boris’ childhood is hardly what 21st century London needs. There is a continuing tension running through the report between a complex research based analysis of what London pupils actually need and the Govian simplicities illustrated by the Chair’s introduction:
“We unashamedly want a return to ‘real’ subjects and an education system in which what children know is valued above how they know.”
“In these mental cellars there should be the knowledge of great vintages such as the works of Homer and Dickens.”
Much of the report actually demolishes this narrow view recognising the importance of developing skills and the place of technology and the arts and media in modern London.
Two particular high profile proposals illustrate the problems. A “Gold Club” of elite schools is proposed – schools that are high achieving and that are successful in closing achievement gaps. They are to be the focus of an annual conference and report highlighting their achievements and other schools will learn from them. This approach runs against everything we know about school improvement. What works is schools collaborating on a basis of mutual professional respect. Moreover selection will be a nightmare and will have the capacity to seriously damage the reputation of many very good schools that are not selected. Most schools have strengths and weaknesses. This kind of simplistic identification of “top schools” is both foolish and dangerous.
The second example is around free schools. The report buys quite uncritically the government line about the value of free schools. Even more bizarrely, after a detailed analysis of the places crisis, the report ignores its own conclusions in favour of supporting free schools wherever they happen to pop up. There is a proper approach to place planning struggling to be heard in this report – using the GLA’s property resources could certainly be helpful – but ideology gets in the way.
It is tempting to see this report as a typical bit of Boris grandstanding on a topic for which he has no actual responsibility. It is more than that and some of it will provide a sound basis for proper policy making in the future. But while thinking is dominated by a narrow ideology about learning and a profoundly simplistic approach to school improvement, real progress is unlikely.