Education: London’s Lessons - Article for the Wood and Vale

Posted: 08/05/14

One of (a number of) success stories from the last 15 years has been the transformation of London schools in general, and Westminster schools in particular. During the 1980s and 1990s, London schools - with exceptions, of course- trailed behind the rest of the country, in reputation certainly, and outcomes frequently. When Westminster Council took over education in 1990, and shortly thereafter abolished their council inspection team, it contributed to a further worsening in performance in many schools. By early last decade, the old North Westminster Community School had declined to the point where only 18% of students achieved 5 A-C grades at GCSE including Maths and English. That was inexcusable.

Many things changed after that. After 2004, North Westminster School was replaced by 3 academies (Westminster, Paddington and King Solomon's) - all now rated ‘outstanding' and with excellent results. Similar radical improvements have been made in other Westminster secondary schools, such as QK, St Augustine's and St George's, and primary education has likewise come on in leaps and bounds.

What changed? And what lessons can we take from the change when we look at the state of current education policy? In the capital, the ‘London challenge' change programme made a massive difference. From 2005 to 2010, the leadership and investment it brought improved outcomes for pupils in London's primary and secondary schools at a faster rate than nationally and London's secondary schools were soon outstripping performance in the rest of England.

Yet today, we are looking at new risks which have come about in the way the government's Free School plans are being managed. As the founder of the CET Free Schools, (one of which is now open in Paddington), told the Times Education Supplement: "the government's flagship education policy is being hampered by a lack of "joined-up thinking" and planning, rushed implementation and insufficient support"

According to the TES, the founder of the CET charity described OFSTED inspection reports for the CET Primary Schools in Westminster and Tower Hamlets as "disastrous" and went on to cast doubt on the whole notion of Free Schools being able to survive independently. He suggested that they needed to turn to local councils or academy trusts for help.
However, Just as new schools are being set up, local education authorities have been reduced in size and scope, and consequently they no longer have the ability to get involved to sort all these problems out- as I have found myself when I have raised concerns brought to me by free school parents and prospective parents.

Schools need support and strong partnerships in order to flourish. Local councils can no longer fulfil this function, which, ridiculously, means trying to manage everything from central government! This is simply not sustainable. Worse still, it is increasingly clear that even national government lacks the powers and ability to get involved when things go wrong (short of them insisting on closure!) Yet the Department for Education admits "Experience has shown use that Free Schools in their first years of operation are different from other academies and face problems that include...operating in temporary inexperienced and often isolated trusts needing to up-skill themselves to run a school for the first time, instability in principal appointments and senior leadership teams...".

Innovation and freedom to try different approaches is one thing- Labour's academies programme and the ‘London Challenge' proved they work- but we shouldn't be taking unacceptable risks with children's education. That is why Labour wants to make sure there is a proper system in place between the level of the individual school and the national Department for Education- it is simply impossible to sort everything out from Whitehall, as we are now finding to our cost. Our new report on the future of education says "We need to build on what we know works - local oversight of schools to keep a check on performance, timely interventions in schools to support those at risk of failing, and partnerships between schools to help each one to improve. With a relentless drive to raise standards and to offer equal opportunity, facilitated by bringing coherence to the chaotic schools system". I say "Amen" to that.