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The man credited with turning around Birmingham schools has been asked to perform a similar miracle in the capital....
The man credited with turning around Birmingham schools has been asked to perform a similar miracle in the capital. Professor Tim Brighouse starts in the new post of London schools commissioner in the new year. And he says his task is to change the face of urban secondary education to one that everyone would want for their children.

Since the Inner London Education Authority was abolished in 1990, the capital has lacked any real co-ordination between its schools, despite the best efforts of the Association of London Government and individual councils.

And the prominence of the capital's schools is exacerbated by their constant scrutiny by newspaper commentators and opinion formers who live in the city.

While 7% of pupils nationally go to independent schools, the figure rises to 13% in London. Despite big improvements in boroughs like Newham and Tower Hamlets, others like Islington, Southwark and Haringey continue to get relatively poor results.

In Birmingham, Prof Brighouse used a combination of tough targets and his own legendary powers of persuasion to win over the city's teachers to his mission to raise standards.

But he also had powers as chief education officer which he will not have in London. Even with a new minister for London schools, Stephen Twigg, co-ordination will be difficult.

Many London parents send their children to schools in other boroughs. When ILEA existed, this was not a problem. It now causes resentment of those living near the best schools.

Mr Twigg knows from his own borough of Enfield of the problems this can cause. Some local children were without school places in recent years because of the large number of pupils crossing borough boundaries. Seeking better co-ordination of admissions will be a priority.

The bigger problem will be improving confidence among middle class parents. The challenge will not only be to improve results, but also to be seen to be making a difference.

With teacher recruitment still a major challenge, and vacancies in London over twice those of other areas due to high house prices, that task will be difficult.

Already the private sector partly runs education in boroughs like Islington, Southwark and Waltham Forest LBCs. London will gain new specialist schools and most of the new city academies as part of the government's diversity drive.

New federations linking good and weak schools may be on the cards. Prof Brighouse had no qualms about working with private schools in Birmingham and could want to involve them in London too.

The literacy hour needs to be revitalised, perhaps with a stronger phonics element for younger children. Underperforming schools may need

to be closed. Letting good schools expand could address a deficit in places.

Prof Brighouse took on one of the country's most challenging educational problems when he became Birmingham's chief education officer.

He has opted for a tougher challenge still.

Conor Ryan

Special adviser (1997-2001) to former education secretary David Blunkett


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