Boris Johnson: Put aside politics and open the schools we need


21 May 2013  COMMENT

London will be short of 118,000 school places by 2016. This is no time to set educational ideology above pupils

I cannot conceal it from you that I went to the same school as the party leader. It is one of those things that make people think this country is a gigantic conspiracy. We both went to the same venerable redbrick seat of learning where the children of the bourgeoisie acquire their irritating good manners and contacts that will last them for life. Yes, folks, I went to the same excellent London primary school as Labour leader Ed Miliband — and I loved the place.

I remember the knee-scabbing playground, the balls of mashed potato (no packed lunches in those days), the light from those majestic cathedral-like windows and the assembly room-cum-gymnasium, with the beautiful wooden bars worn smooth by generations of Camden kids. You know the type of building I mean. London is still landmarked with them — products of the Victorian surge of energy and confidence that gave us the sewers and the Tube tunnels on which — incredibly — we still rely.

Our ancestors were responding to the sudden challenge of a population explosion and the legal necessity to provide free education for every child. Between 1870 and 1902 they built 400 of these handsome Flemish-gabled structures, with their separate entrances for Boys and Girls, and it is a tribute to their foresight and craftsmanship that they are still in use today; and today, of course, they are nothing like enough.

We need to find that identical Victorian gusto and ambition, and to meet a demographic challenge that is every bit as extraordinary. London is booming — with a population that has risen by 600,000 since I became Mayor — and that amazing statistic is not principally a function of immigration, as it happens, but of the simple rate of live births against deaths. Londoners are living longer, and producing more children, and we will need an extra 118,000 school places by 2016. In Croydon alone it is estimated that we will need 5,956 additional primary school places by 2015 and 8,652 by 2016.

We cannot have these children taught in sheds. We need funding for these schools, and together with leaders of London councils we have made representations to the Department of Education. We have had some success. We were awarded an extra £300 million, to reflect the magnitude of what is happening in London; and the Government recently announced a £982 million “targeted basic need” programme to help boroughs set up new schools in areas where they are needed most. That programme is specifically aimed at producing Free Schools — and in my view that is emphatically a good thing.

All schools vary in quality, and some Free Schools will be better than others. But I have seen with my own eyes how groups of parents and others are now setting up schools that have a universal admissions policy — but a distinctive ethos of achievement and ambition. I have visited schools with smartly uniformed children, and bright, clean buildings, where there is an obvious culture of discipline and respect, combined with a love of learning, sport and the arts.

The majority of these schools are being set up in areas with a severe shortage of places, and nine out of 10 Free Schools are now oversubscribed. Surely to goodness it is obvious that these schools are a good thing and that we need more of them? What is not to like?

That is why it has been worrying recently to hear of some local authorities that are being dog-in-the-mangerish, for reasons that can only be diagnosed as ideological. I am told that too many boroughs have been dragging their feet, and introducing planning delays, with the result that several schools have failed to open by September and therefore have to wait another academic year. This leads to uncertainty for parents, who are understandably reluctant to commit if they can’t be sure where and when their preferred school will open.

We all know there is a shortage of sites, and of course the proper democratic processes must be followed in awarding planning consents. But it seems that councils are expertly trapping the applicants for free schools in web of red tape. They are taking too long to validate planning applications, they are making last-minute demands for Section 106 contributions, they are asking for additional surveys after the planning application has been made and they are postponing planning committee meetings.

One council that shall remain nameless demanded that a Free School conduct an archaeological survey, even though the site was not regarded as an area of interest. Three large trial pits were dug, and nothing, of course, was found. One of the most vociferous opponents of Free Schools is apparently a full-time National Union of Teachers official who has his salary paid by a London borough and is a member of the Socialist Workers Party.

There is nothing wrong with being a swivel-eyed Leftie loon, of course; but it is ludicrous to campaign simultaneously for more school funding and against new state schools.

Folks, we can’t have it both ways. London schools have done well in the past 10 years. They are now better — on the whole — than schools elsewhere in the country. That is a fantastic achievement by London teachers and London councils. Now is the time to put politics aside, swallow our ideological differences, get the funding for London and get more schools built.

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