City Metric: Not a lot of people know this, but my adopted father worked for Ken Livingstone at the GLC. He was a staunch Tory who seemed to hate his boss, especially his education policy: as a youngster, he would constantly tell me that in order to be a teacher you had to be a "black one-legged lesbian". Needless to say, it took me until my twenties to come out to him as gay and, perhaps unsurprisingly, his reaction was to ask me to change my name and to not contact him again. We didn’t speak for 25 years.
But that Little England vs London divide overshadowed the debate about education, which is as poignant now as it was then. Unfortunately for London, and maybe even the country, London lost that debate: since then every effort has been made to carve London’s education authorities up by dividing it into three pie-shaped segments that stretch from East Anglia to Hampshire.
The most recent such regional plan was drawn up by my close friend Michael Gove, who I admire immensely. But it has to be said that his reasons for disallowing an autonomous London Education Authority may be stuck in an outdated view of the achievements of the Greater London – and even the Inner London Education authority – as it appeared to Margaret Thatcher.
In fact, when you look at those bodies’ achievements, they helped to mark the education system out, and define the values we now understand to be progressive, inclusive, multicultural and tolerant, long time before these words were fashionable. They were the first to ban corporal punishment. They were the first to actively seek to encourage members of ethnic minorities and minority faiths to play a role, one that more accurately reflected our population. They even understood the tremendous burden that young people like me carried as they realised they were gay, and their efforts to reduce racially and sexuality-motivated bullying was state of the art. Indeed, by distributing books like Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, which was written to inform children about homosexuality, the educational authorities took a brave and progressive stance, despite it being highly controversial at the time.
Ken lost his way – he just couldn’t resist meddling with UK-wide politics, launching political mortars across the Thames from his throne overlooking the Palace of Westminster. But when it came to London, on many issues he was spot on (even if he got the bendy busses wrong). He was as big a hero to me then as Boris is today.
Ours is a city bigger than most European countries, and roughly the size of Wales and Scotland combined. We have almost 700 schools and 50 universities, two of which are in the world’s top 10. Managing our schools and colleges is a big task. I believe that we, as a city, need to recover our autonomy in education policy. So what would my London Education Authority look like?
First, we need to look at the problems with the current system. Last week I met with Sir Peter Newsam last week, the former Chief Education Officer of the ILEA, and he expressed concern that the responsibilities of central and local government in education policy had become unbalanced – Westminster has become too powerful. With links between education committees, ministers and education officers becoming weaker in favour of a more powerful Secretary of State, we have seen a “withering of democratic involvement in education”.
This has caused problems that I believe can be solved by reviving London-specific education authorities. For example, it is currently very difficult for the GLA to access reliable statistics on pupil numbers, as they’re required to collect them from individual boroughs, rather than a central London authority. Since pupils sometimes attend schools outside of their borough, it has become more difficult to address shortages of places and allocate pupils accordingly. This has made it increasingly tough to tackle problems such as primary schools being clustered together, or the fierce competition for places. By having a better grasp of school places and pupil numbers, London would be in a much better position to plan for the future.
In fact, being able to coordinate better would allow me to introduce American-style electric school buses. This would dramatically reduce congestion at rush hour and give parents – particularly single parents – the opportunity to work longer hours.
I would also like to see the introduction of a school commissioner for London. Currently, we have three regional commissioners, responsible for a chunk of London and the surrounding area. Dr. Tim Coulson is the regional schools commissioner for the East of England and North-East London, for example, while Martin Post is responsible for South-Central England and North-West London. By consolidating these branches, we can create a much more focused and efficient system.
Crucially, I would like London to have more control over its funding. By allowing London to borrow money easily, we would be able to give the city more resources to address immediate and medium-term shortages of school places. In the past, this control over our own budget encouraged dynamism and innovation, as shown by the growth of specialist institutions like studio schools.
Michael Bloomberg may have ruled himself out of challenging me for mayor, but his administration in New York showed the potential benefits of a bold education policy. In 2002, he was given direct control over the Board of Education, and the results speak for themselves: dropout rates fell, the percentage of students deemed proficient in maths and English increased, and on-time graduation rates rose to their highest point in a decade. This kind of devolution has paid off – and I want to bring it to London.