London: a global learning city

Next May, London will elect a new mayor and Greater London Authority (GLA). The mayor has no statutory education powers but the fact that they are directly elected by the people of London gives them a legitimacy and convening power which could be used to make a real impact.

Given that there are many other challenges to address in housing, transport and the environment where the mayor does have real powers, why would they want to spend any time meddling in education?

If there is one single overarching issue for a London mayor to address it surely has to be inequality. One of the richest and most dynamic cities in the world is also one of the most unequal. Apart from those who have an ideological commitment to the idea of inequality as a necessary condition for economic success, we can surely all agree that the inequality question must be at the heart of this mayoral campaign.

Child poverty, homelessness, unemployment, underemployment, low pay, insecurity, exploitative working conditions and the outrageous cost of housing all mean that for many Londoners there is a wide gulf between their aspirations for a better life and their actual chances of realising those aspirations. The presence among us of the super-rich, the 0.1% who are immune from the impact of austerity or public spending cuts reveals another gulf, that between the ‘can’t make ends meet’ and the ‘can’t spend it fast enough’.

To make an impact on inequality, our new mayor will need to develop policies which redistribute while also strengthening solidarity. In other words, if Londoners want a city at ease with itself where everyone has a stake in the future, resources, wealth, power and influence will need to be shared more equally. This is not about hampering entrepreneurship or innovation but giving everyone a chance to contribute and to benefit.

Such a strategy of ‘redistributive solidarity’ can touch all aspects of policy, including education. So what might a progressive education policy for a mayor with no education powers actually look like?

A new London mayor could choose to use their convening power to the full to get schools, universities, employers and local authorities together around the table and expect them to work together to tackle the challenges. This would build on people’s strong wish to collaborate on shared priorities and galvanize all those who wish to help provide those educational opportunities which are most lacking. The vision would be of a learning city where everyone is a lifelong learner with all the benefits that brings to individuals, the economy and society.

Here are just a few ideas an ‘education mayor’ could argue for:

  • The creation of a single Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC) reporting to the mayor and with a brief extending to all schools. At the moment there are 3 RSC’s who each have a slice of London as part of a much wider territory, trying to address issues of quality, supply and demand for schools in their patch.
  • A single London Education Authority which would aim to put all the city’s educational resources at the disposal of London’s people. It could require all education providers to make their buildings and facilities available to Londoners for use out of hours. It could broker relationships between sixth forms and universities which could benefit everyone. It could organise the best possible sports, cultural and development opportunities and make these available to all young Londoners.
  • A London curriculum which helps people of all ages understand their city, its history, its economy, its diversity and its global context and see this as a starting point for volunteering, service learning, community research and development work by young people across the capital. An army of students working on local projects could transform our city and build new relationships between people from different traditions and generations.
  • A London Youth Service which understands what young people need and reaches out to all young people to provide year-round opportunities which build their confidence and skills and help them to take their place in society.
  • A ‘London education promise’ which spells out what the city-wide education system would guarantee every citizen from early years to the third age and what the city would expect from them in return.
  • Post-16, the mayor could establish a common application process for all post-16 opportunities including apprenticeships. This would be independent of any provider and be supported by professional and impartial city-wide information, advice and guidance. Post-16 providers could also collaborate to offer outstanding specialist programmes and support to meet the fullest range of needs whether in the visual and performing arts, health, science and engineering, enterprise or the humanities.

Much of this could be achieved by reallocating some of the wasted or duplicated resources in our current chaotic ‘non-system’. But if necessary, a small wealth tax or financial transaction tax could be introduced; an ‘education levy’ as a dedicated fund to stimulate the creation of a London-wide education system.

These are just the outlines of a possible manifesto for any mayoral candidate who wants to tap the massive educational potential of what we have in London and be an education mayor amongst other things. A thought-through programme based on this idea could see London become the greatest learning city in the world.

See also:

A better future for London (May 2015)


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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