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.

The White Paper gives some grounds for believing that the Government has at last learnt the lesson that while few Londoners will take to the streets to defend the Greater London Council, the same is by no means true of the ILEA. If so, then the Government deserves some credit for judgment and courage. Unpopular though it is in many circles, undoubtedly large (though fast getting smaller), inescapably bureaucratic, and a very big spender indeed, the people of inner London have many times made it clear that they want the Authority kept. The last occasion was as recent as 1978, when the Conservative-controlled Borough of Wandsworth moved to break away from ILEA and run its education independently like the outer London boroughs. The strength of local opposition surprised not only Wandsworth Councillors: it was unexpected amongst members and officers in County Hall. The paradox of ILEA is that although anyone who has any contact with it, including many of those who work for it, express frequent exasperation with its bureaucracy, any proposition that it should be broken up is met with fierce opposition. The only other institution I know of which inspires the same kind of ambivalence is the BBC. The ILEA is a very different case, but it attracts the same combination of powerful loyalty and affection with irritation and ridicule. ‘Let’s make ILEA sillier,’ read a badge, now a collectors’ item, produced by an enterprising bunch of ILEA headteachers during an in-service training course.

The reasons for this paradox are many and complex, but there are two major ones. The first relates to an awareness of the sheer scale of the problems which ILEA faces and has faced. Some 40 per cent of children in ILEA secondary schools come from single-parent families, as compared with 12.5 per cent nationally. This is an odd statistic which covers situations as different as genuine familial distress, ethnic groups like West Indians with a relaxed view of the nuclear family, and the neurotic middle classes. Disadvantage is not the exclusive province of lower socio-economic groups. A recent language survey conducted by the ILEA Research and Statistics Group produced the figure that there are a total of 131 native languages other than English spoken by ILEA pupils. Such a figure is swollen by the Indian sub-continent (where there are some two hundred languages), but the scale of the problem is nevertheless formidable. The inner city feels the immediate impact of crises anywhere in the world – Cyprus, Lebanon, Bangladesh – as well as the vagaries of London employers. I remember the bewilderment of administrators at suddenly being faced with a clutch of Moroccans in North Kensington; it turned out that these were families imported by the hotel trade when the supply of cheap labour from the Philippines became difficult. And (for reasons which I only think I understand) immigrant populations are almost invariably rural, whether from Hong Kong, Jamaica, Bangladesh or Morocco. The Moroccans were not the fly youngsters with efficient broken English from Casablanca or Tangiers: they were Berbers, from the desert and the hills, and they had jumbo lice. For most of these children, a city is an entirely new experience.

ILEA officials and teachers are reticent about such problems – understandably, since broadcasting them could only increase the anxieties to which parents are anyway prone. Similar reticence has affected ILEA’s difficulties in staffing its schools. When I first arrived in ILEA in 1974, the Authority was still experiencing appalling difficulty in hiring teachers at all, let alone good teachers. Staff turnover was horrifying: there were several secondary schools with an annual turnover of more than 30 per cent. Peter Newsam, Deputy and then Education Officer during the Seventies, has recently described the situation in primary schools like this: ‘In the late 1960s and early 1970s there were only a few hundred experienced primary teachers standing between the schools and breakdown. Those teachers exhausted themselves, a few quite literally killed themselves, in the effort to keep their schools going. School after school, for term after term, was left with one or two senior teachers in charge and with a constant succession of young products of the colleges of education, ill-prepared for inner-city education, and, above all, ill-paid and ill-housed.’ An extraordinary amount of ingenuity was applied to the problem. The list of approved teacher-training courses which had accumulated in the Department of Education and Science was scrutinised. The rationale for approval of some of these institutions was never entirely clear, and some of them looked on the face of it unlikely. Senior officers’ equivalent of the employers’ ‘milk round’ took in institutions in Maryland, Cyprus and Madagascar.

Teachers could not be found, but money could. Attention was then directed to providing the maximum amount of non-teaching support. An expensive television service was started, wired to every ILEA institution, on the theory, then fashionable, that such teaching expertise as you had could in this way be maximised. Teaching materials specific to London were prepared, such that today ILEA is, incredibly, said to be the largest educational publisher in the country. ILEA was the first Authority in this country (and is still one of only two) to staff all its secondary schools with qualified librarians. It invented a completely new figure, a Media Resources Officer, a kind of combination of designer, technician and maintenance engineer, to help teachers prepare materials and use audio-visual aids. (So successful was this innovation that secondary heads would say, privately, that they would rather lose a teacher than an MRO.) And it maximised the advantages to be gained from its size by organising central loan services for anything it could think of: films, musical scores, biological specimens, theatrical costumes, specialised scientific equipment.

It is not difficult to see how ILEA’s reputation for throwing money at problems arose. But my impression, coming new to administration, was different. As I pieced together the elements of what had been done in the late Sixties and early Seventies, my admiration for the scale and boldness of the operation, and for the imagination involved, grew. Much of it was the direct responsibility of the then Education Officer, Eric Briault, an unassuming but formidable administrator. It is true that some of the money was not well spent. That should come as no surprise. The greater surprise seems to me to be that ILEA survived at all with so much as a slither of credibility.

The achievement of ILEA children has returned to the national average with the staff stability of the Eighties. For the first year in which it is possible to make comparisons, the examination results from the comprehensive schools are identical to those achieved under the old selective system. The legacy, nevertheless, of the Seventies will take some years to work its way through. This brings me to the second ground for the paradox of the way people regard ILEA. I can best illustrate this with two anecdotes from the Seventies.

The first concerns an experienced and successful headteacher of a secondary school on a visit to a prestigious women’s college in Cambridge. The experience of such places was new to her, but in the Seventies both ILEA and many Oxbridge colleges recognised the importance of establishing communication with comprehensive schools, especially inner-city ones, which had no experience of Oxbridge entry. The senior tutor talked about the college and the kind of criteria which she adopted in her own subject, which happened to be English. It all seemed, the head told me later, very enlightened. But after several hours of such discussion and walking around the college with some of the undergraduates, she could contain herself no longer. ‘But I can’t send my girls here,’ she protested in their defence. ‘My girls are so ... so tarty.’

The second anecdote relates to a private policy meeting of senior members and officers. Under discussion was the future of an East End secondary school in an area densely populated with Bangladeshis, with a continuing immigration of over a hundred secondary age children per term. The favoured option was to close the school, distributing the children to neighbouring schools where there was ample space. A senior inspector began to demur. He mentioned the enclosed nature of the local Bangladeshi community, referred obliquely to the problem of ‘Paki-bashing’, and to the tough, traditional East End nature of one or two of the schools to which it was proposed to send the children – one of which indeed had a reputation for nurturing future leaders of organised crime. Of course, the inspector recognised that the education would be better, but with this particular ethnic group ... At that point a senior member of the Authority, an immensely shrewd lady of normally equable disposition began to remonstrate angrily. She wanted to know how the officer could possibly dare to come before a Committee of the Authority and tell elected members that there were any criteria to be considered other than the quality of the education provided. Perhaps she had misunderstood. Was the officer serious? There was only the shortest of pauses before the inspector said that that was indeed what he had been saying and that he was perfectly serious.

The dilemma which faces intelligent and experienced people in the ILEA service in the Eighties is more complex than a tendency to underestimate the ability and potential achievement of London children, though that is certainly a feature. Aware that success in the public eye relates to traditional criteria, such as Oxbridge entry and exam results, there are strong lingering doubts about whether such routes are right for the pupils they encounter day by day. The headmistress did not disapprove of her girls’ tartiness; on the contrary, she welcomed and enjoyed it, as part of a vitality and independence of spirit which should not be lightly socialised out of them. The senior inspector was making a plea, which was probably doomed to fail, for the welfare of a vulnerable, introverted immigrant community as potentially more important than its educational achievement. Of course, this protectiveness will not stand up to the pressures which are imposed on the system: ILEA girls will go to Oxbridge colleges, and immigrant communities will have somehow to brave the assault on religious and family traditions. In the longer term, their presence may modify the institutions that are held to be in their best interests; in the short term, the passage will be painful, and the professional concern deserves to be more vigorously articulated.

As ILEA returns to normality, the particular nature of professional judgment and experience which is generated in the Authority is brought into contrast, perhaps conflict, with the values and judgments which are current elsewhere. What this process highlights is the extent to which ILEA is a complex and developed professional community, and not just a profligate mechanism for delivering a service. The ILEA has a long history of generating concerned and intelligent responses which it inherited from the old London County Council. It is the remarkable persistence of this ‘community’ which goes a long way to explaining why the irritation which many people feel with the ILEA bureaucracy is tempered with affection and a determination not to see it broken up. It has maintained this under the most difficult conditions ever encountered in this country, and its abolition would be an act of vandalism.

The Government’s view is that ILEA is undemocratic. This is on the grounds that few of the electorate were ever aware that they were electing members of the ILEA when they voted for the GLC councillors. Leaving aside whether Londoners were ever that remote from any understanding of their local government, there is some reason for saying that in fact the opposite is the case: that alone of the education authorities in the country, a vote cast for an inner-London GLC councillor is certainly cast for a member of the education committee. If the ambiguity is thought to be a problem, then a simple solution would be to arrange for direct elections, no doubt combined with some borough representation as at present. Such a solution has been favoured for some time by many officers and some DES officials, on the grounds that this would serve to depoliticise the Authority, and that many more candidates independent of the political parties might be persuaded to stand, including some from minority ethnic groups.

This solution has been rejected. The ILEA will be run by a joint board from the boroughs. It is difficult not to be cynical about this decision. No voter in inner London will be aware whether the candidate is to serve on ILEA or not. The Government evidently believes that financial accountability is more important than the direct influence of the electorate over the whole range of educational decisions. This interpretation is supported by the proposed ability of the Secretary of State to determine the Authority’s expenditure for the first three years, in effect making direct rule from Westminster inevitable. No comparable infringement of local democracy has been proposed in recent years. It is also, I believe, a grave political misjudgment. The electorate has shown many times that while it would like to be assured that its education service is efficient it does not want the level of provision reduced. And it will certainly not take kindly to this being done by the DES.