(Photography: Simon Way)
(Holly Donagh is A New Direction's Partnerships Director)
The conclusions of the panel which looked into the state of London schools in 2012 (and have just presented their report to Boris Johnson), may surprise some in their overall tone and optimism. This is not the critique from on-high that may have been feared. Instead the panel presents a picture of steady improvement in education standards in London and solid grounds to think this will continue.
At the heart of the report is a passionate plea to utilise the London-ness of London, and to turn the city's challenges - complexity, diversity and inequality - into opportunities for all to succeed. It is hard not to be won over by the imagination of some of the ideas and the sense that whilst the UK as a whole may be going in a particular direction, London can have its own trajectory and be the master of its own future.
At A New Direction, we worked with the Mayor's office to help scope the idea of a London Curriculum which forms the centre of the report. The framework for the London Curriculum gives an opportunity to expand partnerships between the cultural sector and schools, and provides a platform to start addressing the perennial barriers schools face to working more externally (this was also a key feature of our own research into the extent of cultural partnership amongst London schools) - read more here.
Set against the statistic that nearly 50% of young Londoners have never been to a theatre performance, gallery or music event, and the reality that many never move beyond the post-code in which they live, the London Curriculum offers a way to bring the city more directly into the lives of young people who otherwise might not have the chance to experience what is on their doorstep.
The report highlights the fact that London schools are for the first time narrowly exceeding the rest of the country in terms of attainment at GCSE and this is particularly marked for pupils from low income families. As a child claiming free schools meals, you are more likely to do better in a London school than elsewhere in the country.
However, the report also highlights the difficulty of sustaining progress. In a context where 90,000 new school places are required over the next five years, where poverty remains endemic and where there are some of the highest rates of 'unknowns' – (that is pupils not in school and not even registered as not in education training and employment, but simply off the book) it will be tough.
Again the authors point to the assets and particular environment of the city to help keep moving forward. School clustering, sharing practice – developing a cohort of 'Gold Club' schools who can lead and evidence where new approaches really work. An annual 'global city' conference ensuring London uses its international status and global links to learn from the best and keep aspirations high – for teachers and pupils.
Perhaps most headline grabbing is the proposal is for a fund to support excellence – rewarding innovative approaches to solving problems. Whilst we welcome these proposals and think they are absolutely right in their intention, our experience of Creative Partnerships and partnering with initiatives like the student pledge as part of London challenge remind us that it is not easy to bring people together and push forward change and it will require real structural planning as well as long-term commitment from all parties.
The recommendations present a zero tolerance approach to poor numeracy and literacy results but also show a desire that children broaden their horizons 'instilling a love of arts and music'. The panel conducted a survey of schools improvement needs and this showed that as much as schools want support to address traditional concerns such as raising standards they also want help with things like 'developing a creative curriculum with cross curricular links'. In a city like London a one-size fits all approach is never going to work.
Access to careers and understanding the peculiarities of London's labour market – highly skilled, international, competitive and highly creative (both in terms of the number of creative industries in the city and in terms of skills required) also forms a large part of the report.
Therefore, there are many 'hooks' for the cultural and creative sector in the inquiry as well as some solace for schools leaders wanting to sustain cultural partnerships and creative approaches to learning. There is a direct acknowledgement that London's culture (in all senses of the word) is probably its greatest asset and an underutilized resource for learning. It may already seem like cliché but surely the positive experience of the summer's Games - where the optimistic, youthful, diverse and forward looking side of the city showed itself to the world – provides some kind of route map.
The question then becomes how do cultural partners see their role in terms of education and how might they respond to the challenge set out in this report? How will the creative industries really go out of their way to encourage entry level employees from London boroughs? How will museums and galleries open up their spaces to even more pupils – possibly even helping run art classes for overcrowded schools? How will central London organisations provide more opportunities and access to outer London kids?
The report talks about a 'shared vision' for education in a global city – this is a fantastic opportunity to articulate an ambition for all young Londoners to engage creatively and meaningfully with the life and opportunity of London but it will need the commitment to change and drive of many parts of society – schools, parents, cultural leaders and employers - to really see the vision through to reality.
At A New Direction, where our mission is to see London become the best place in the world for a creative childhood and exceptional cultural education, we are excited about the possibility of having a strategic framework for education in the city that we can work with to ensure all young Londoners take-part to the full in the cultural life of the city.