In Defence of ILEA

Martin Lightfoot

For many years the Inner London Education Authority has been under threat. It is not liked by Westminster; it is only grudgingly respected by Whitehall. Conservative politicians have long wished that it could be broken up, not least because the chances of right-wing control of the Authority are remote. The Government’s White Paper on the future of the Greater London Council and the Metropolitan Counties, called with a mind-numbing disrespect for the appropriate phrase Streamlining the Cities, appears to let ILEA off lightly. It is proposed that a joint board of the inner London boroughs should take over the responsibility for it, though on this basis it appears that the bureaucracy will remain intact.

On most measures, ILEA is the largest education Authority in the country: others have more pupils in schools, but ILEA spends more, it has a sixth of the country’s public-sector higher education, and it runs the largest adult education service in the world. It also has a unique constitution. Whereas elsewhere education is run by the education committee of a directly-elected local Authority, in inner London the members are the GLC councillors for inner London constituencies, plus one member each nominated by the 12 inner London boroughs and the Common Council of the City of London. This unique arrangement has one important consequence: ILEA finances itself by ‘precepting’ the inner London boroughs, which cannot constitutionally refuse the level set by the ILEA. The reasoning behind this is simply one of political accountability: since many of the inner London boroughs are likely to be under different political control from the ILEA, and since the GLC may be, it would be unreasonable to give any of them the power of refusal. Given the way the constitution is set up, there is little alternative to this system, but it is not difficult to understand the anxiety and friction to which it has given rise.

But criticism of the Authority is based on far more than its alleged profligacy. It is based on standards that are thought to apply in the schools, both academic and social, and on the failure of the ILEA, in spite of the large amount of money spent, to provide adequate schooling in safe surroundings. This alleged failure is sometimes linked to other criticisms of modern education: trendy teaching methods, young teachers who do not know their subjects, comprehensive schools, mixed ability teaching, lack of discipline, unjustified abandonment of rote learning, and so forth. Much of this is based on isolated instances and on rumour (to which public education in all advanced countries is highly prone). Some of it is also middle-class rationalisation for a deep fear of the corrupting power of their neighbours’ children, and an anxiety which goes much beyond the middle classes about the physical safety of children in an inner-city environment.

It is impossible to be clear how far these criticisms are justified. No amount of statistical manoeuvre can possibly give a clear answer. That inner-London education is not as good as it should be is certainly true. By most statistical measures, it is also patchy: correcting examination figures for social class intake, for example, will give some surprisingly good results for working-class Tower Hamlets, some appalling ones for neighbouring Hackney, and some distinctly poor ones for (relatively) middle-class Greenwich. Most inner-city schools do not appear to stretch pupils, and there is some marked under-achievement, especially among children of unskilled manual workers and minority ethnic groups.

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