WAS somebody at Camden Council having a little joke at my expense last night? I was invited to the round table discussions at Acland Burghley School in Tufnell Park marking the start of the Education Commission, an independent look at the future of the borough’s schools and their relations with the council. There was a good turnout, plenty of tables. So, which one did the organisers table-plan me at?
The one which sat me next to former deputy council leader Angela Mason, who many lines on these pages have been devoted to in recent weeks – some of which I guess she can’t always have appreciated. Also around the table were the headteachers of Parliament Hill School, where there was irritation in staff room at one of my articles from the Labour Party conference last year, and William Ellis School, of which I wrote several pieces on their past financial problems. It was nice to meet them all.
There were other headteachers there too and it was good to hear them agree that secondary schools in Camden should not become “islands on their own” in a new London landscape likely to be dotted with ‘free schools’. One of the strengths of the borough’s schools is that they have rarely fought among themselves. Just look at the success of La Swap. It will be interesting to see if the opening of the UCL Academy in Swiss Cottage and a gradual decline in applications to schools that were once easily oversubscribed create some sort of competition down the line.
It’s all for the Education Commission to investigate over the next few months. And for this exercise, there was lots of self-congratulations from the politicians last night that Camden was setting out on something no other local authority is doing. The idea of holding commissions like this is actually not so rare. In Islington, the Fairness Commission recently investigated inequalities in that borough. An odd name, but a worthwhile exercise headed by Richard Wilkinson, author of The Spirit Level.
A real cynic might ask why Camden chose education for such special treatment when there are so many burning issues affecting this part of the world. Why not, for example, a Housing Commission? After all, waiting lists for social housing are so long and repairs to council-owned properties remain one of Camden’s thorniest issues. Julian Fulbrook, the council’s housing chief was on television at the weekend, explaining that 500 council flats remain empty. What a waste. Surely all of this is just as worthy of the commission treatment?
The ultra cynic might say housing is an area where there is still resentment towards the Labour Party for the way former housing ministers starved Camden estates of investment – purely on the blackmail basis that tenants would not agree to their homes being privatised. Local members find that whole period hard to defend.
Similarly, Conservative and Liberal Democrat members find it hard to defend the removal of the Building Schools for the Future money that had already been earmarked before the general election to improve all of Camden’s schools. It was one of the first things the coalition government did. Bosh – it was gone in a flash. The justification seemed to relate to BSF mistakes made elsewhere in the country, not in Camden – where headteachers, governors, parents and councillors of all parties had worked hard to draw up important improvements. It’s not a decision councillors with links to the coalition would necessarily want to dwell on.
So. If you were a Labour boss running Camden Council: which issue would you choose to set up a Commission to investigate – housing or education?
The party knows it has a good chance of winning a debate on schools in Camden locally while it has the trump argument: well, your government took away £200 million for our schools and left children in rotting classrooms.
It sounds better than: well, your government took away £283 million for our council homes and left families in rotting council flats.
But that’s just what a cynic would say. Just a cynic.
Last night, I asked the Education Commission’s chairman Sir Mike Tomlinson, respected by politicians of all stripes, whether his evidence-taking sessions would be hi-jacked by people furious at cuts to schools, hiking of higher education fees and removal of sixth form allowances. This, I suggested, could be the perfect forum for free school haters to bash free schools. He insisted he would not allow that to happen, that it would not become party political and not simply a talking shop of anti-government views. He just wants every child in Camden to have access to a decent school. We can only wish him well in that task.
Over to you Sir Mike…