Why London needs help

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The Independent Online

The Government should be applauded for its decision to appoint a commissioner to improve standards in London's schools. It is odd perhaps that it hasn't done something before. The problems in the capital are unique. The high cost of living makes it impossible to recruit and retain teachers. And the proportion of families fleeing state education for the private sector is far higher – 30 per cent in some parts of the capital – than in the country as a whole (7 per cent).

The Government should be applauded for its decision to appoint a commissioner to improve standards in London's schools. It is odd perhaps that it hasn't done something before. The problems in the capital are unique. The high cost of living makes it impossible to recruit and retain teachers. And the proportion of families fleeing state education for the private sector is far higher – 30 per cent in some parts of the capital – than in the country as a whole (7 per cent).

As ever, the devil will be in the detail. As yet, no one knows what the commissioner's powers will be. They have yet to be determined. We believe it should be a full-time job and the commissioner should have power to recommend capital-wide strategies directly to ministers without needing to consult local education authorities. The Government has made a step in the right direction by giving the new Education minister, Stephen Twigg, MP for Enfield, special responsibility for the strategy for London schools. The commissioner should report directly to him.

It is clear why ministers are anxious to devote time and energy to solving the problems of London's education system. Too often, the impression is given that the crisis in the capital is symptomatic of a crisis in the education system as a whole. That is not the case. If the Government could crack some of the deep-seated problems in London, it would benefit education nationwide by dispelling that impression.

The name of Professor Tim Brighouse, who retires from his job as Birmingham's chief education officer this autumn, has been touted as a possible candidate. He would be an excellent choice, but there are doubts about whether he wants a full-time job. If, as we expect, he isn't keen, the Government should apply the same set of principles in choosing an alternative as those that made ministers think of him in the first place. This is no job for a party apparatchik. Someone with ideas is needed, someone who will think the unthinkable and has the authority and gumption to criticise existing policies. The Government should not be afraid of such a person. A solution to the problems is more important than creating a new job with a fancy title.

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