The Mayor’s Education Conference

George Berwick spoke at the London Mayor’s Education Conference on the 27th November in the panel discussion, ‘How Can We Continue to Innovate in a Changing Educational Landscape?’

London is an education success story.  The improvements, started in the late 1990s have continued through the years of London Challenge and the development of academy chains.  It’s quite remarkable that sustained improvement has been achieved in all phases of our education system for over a two generations of students. I believe this has happened because the whole education service has taken up the challenge of providing an education for the capitals students that matches the status of London as a world-class city.

London as a whole has an energy and attitude that embraces innovation, experimentation and the relentless pursuit of excellence.  This attitude is reflected across so much of what London does best:  it’s no accident that London’s the home of leaders in creative industries, business, and education.  In tertiary education we’re home to some of the world’s biggest names.  We are justly proud of the fact that the Institute of Education and UCL are world leaders in education research and that London is increasingly the destination for the most talented and ambitious minds. 

London’s particular dynamic outlook and ethos is reflected in what happens in our schools: there’s something uniquely defining about a London school. Many of my colleagues comment on the dynamic nature of our schools as reported to them from the increasing visitors from across the globe.  The key to this success story is that at its core there is an unwavering focus on providing a world-class education for all the students in our city.

This pupil- centred focus is at the heart of our education service.  Schools are open to be challenged and constantly striving to improve further.  Rather than trying to impose a common solution they work from the experience of the students outwards. Through my long time working with schools I’ve seen how London schools share in common a ‘can-do’ attitude, absorbing best practice and quickly putting it into practice in classrooms.  The lessons of Shanghai and others are cherry-picked for effectiveness and put to use:  There’s no ‘status quo’ mentality in the best London schools.  For example, initiatives such as Teach First have played a key role in improving the pool of teachers in our city. There’s a continual positive motion in our schools – London’s education services assimilates the best.

The other element that makes London schools distinct is the ability to manage innovation.  Many of today’s leading English and increasingly global education practices originated in the capital:  from government initiatives like National Leaders in Education and Teaching School Alliances (TSA), to schools-facing organisations like Olevi, Challenge Partners, Teaching Leaders, The Brilliant Club and Researchers in Schools; groundbreaking schools groups including Brindishe Federation, ARK, and Harris Academy chains; collaboratives like London West Alliance, Compton Barnet TSA and Impact TSA; and new curriculum models in School 21, UCL Academy and Future Academies. Increasingly business is finding a constructive way to contribute to this by supporting initiatives such as Social Business Trust’s support for Challenge Partners and London Early Years Foundation and Impetus PEF’s investment in Action Tutoring and Place2Be. These London-rooted examples of innovation have had far-reaching effect: the Regional Schools Commissioners role is modeled on the leadership strategies established and tested in the London Leadership Strategy.

Initiatives such as these were all at one stage subsidised to specifically encourage innovation to flourish.  Innovation drives excellence in education.   I believe that the Mayor of London has a role to play in facilitating innovation in schools, just as currently happens across so many other areas of London’s success stories.  The Mayor’s influence is seen and felt across massive areas of London’s development:  from infrastructure, construction, business finance and housing.  But the Mayor has no mandate across the city’s education strategy. And it’s needed because the pressures facing the Mayor’s other priorities are also felt keenly across education.  Some of his roles in education are blatantly clear.  With a rapidly growing school population the absence of an overarching strategic for places could impact heavily on our pupils:  this cannot be successfully tackled at a local level. 

There are a number of growing pressures on the education system in the London that would better be served centrally. The first is the need to continue encouraging the best teachers to want to work in the City, and enabling them to do so.  Many of the strategies used to encourage the best to work here in other industries have also applied effectively to teachers. However, because of the unique nature of our City there might come a time when subsidised housing is necessary to support teachers too, and specific teacher recruitment campaigns might be better served centrally.  

Another growing pressure on London’s education system that would be better served by a central education mandate is the need to create a pipeline of talented leaders to run our schools.  The major learning from the development of the successful academy chains and London Challenge is that the capacity of our leaders to lead effectively determines the quality of the education we provide for our students. We need world-class leaders to create a world-class education system. Even the largest academy chains do not have the capacity to resolve this issue across the city.  So there needs to be a City-wide approach to developing teaching capacity, that is run by, or at the very least accountable to the Mayor’s office.

The Mayor can influence and facilitate innovation to flourish in a number of ways: through funding, subsidies and building pan-business/educational/voluntary networks.    I’ve seen London schools’ capacity to identify, incubate and roll out innovation grow dramatically over the last fifteen years.  But there are a range of issues to be addressed around resourcing in schools.  When public service initiatives move from the start-up phase to implementation, it often becomes increasingly difficult to access the necessary resources to keep good work growing: potential funding becomes a shrinking resource base that gets worse over time.

Taking  innovation to scale has a direct impact on schools’ budgets.  There’s a conflict for schools between freeing up innovative leaders to allow great new ideas to take seed, and how to balance this with the potential loss of teaching time caused by freeing up these leaders from the timetable.  It’s currently difficult to make room for this in schools because of the tension between balancing the lesson time with allowing innovative leaders to explore and research best practice. The Mayor’s Fund has substantially assisted in this by resourcing classroom activity to support innovation.

As in all highly innovative, high achieving cultures, we need to guard against a single solution approach.  Many academics and commentators are trying to explain why London’s education system is so successful and the truth is it is a complex web of a whole range of factors and not one thing or a number of clearly identifiable ones. London’s never going to be about ‘one size fits all’: we are a proudly diverse city, and the wide variety of approaches in the pursuit of best practice applies equally in our schools as to so many other aspect of city life.  Someone needs to own this mantle and that should be the Mayor. By providing money to schools to stimulate more innovation in the city the Mayor can have a positive, aspirational and practical impact on delivery.  And as the outcomes of the currently fund has shown this form of intervention promises to be refreshing:  instead of punitively focusing on interventions for failing schools, it can instead set about schools improvement by celebrating and empowering the best.

The Mayor champions so many areas of London’s success:  through funding research and development, facilitating partnerships, celebrating successes and banging the drum for London’s talented achievers.  So there is a role for the Mayor to do the same for London’s education.

2015 Conference robust innovation parallel session briefing