Bitter legacy

Tony Burgess

Hackney Downs has been ensnared by its past, by the abolition of the ILEA and the teachers' disputes of the 1980s, says Tony Burgess, the outgoing chair of governors.

To me, the great days at Hackney Downs were the '70s and early '80s, when the school went comprehensive, rather than the times which have figured in the recent commentaries, with their marvellous, male narratives of sponsored achievement.

When Hackney Downs went comprehensive, it became a curriculum pioneer. Together with a few other London schools, it led the way in a serious engagement with the new populations sending their children to schools in inner-city areas. Its teachers researched and devised a curriculum, which taught both skills and important ideas, and respected difference and diversity.

The transition which drove the Government to send in its first education association to take over the school's management began in the mid-1980s. Old hands who remember the Inner London Teachers' Association and the Inner London Education Authority will rub their chins, sagely. Few who knew London schools then will doubt that destabilisation took place from both outside and within.

What also needs to be recalled is the climate engineered by Government. Attacks on "loony" progressive teachers were normal. Inner-city areas were starved of money. Multicultural policies were undermined. The teachers' action re-shaped the culture of many schools, creating divisions between staff and management, and between schools and local authorities, which replaced the earlier collaboration.

The roll in Hackney Downs fell sharply against this background, and it emerged with the 450 pupils which was the pattern for the '90s. Meanwhile, memories of difficult times still linger. But the school's roll fell as the consequence of two specific causes. A fire, and then asbestos problems closed it for nearly a year. More important, an ILEA reorganisation created new schools and changed the patterns of recruitment.

When the ILEA handed over to the local council in 1990, Hackney Downs was described as "at risk". It was widely held that the school had been "fingered" as a last act of revenge for disagreements with ILTA. Hackney council took on a troubled inheritance. What has happened since?

My time as chair began last November. It will seem careless to have found myself chair of governors of a school both designated for special measures and destined for consultation over closure. But I have known the school for more than 20 years, and I have been hooked in more closely by the report in June from the Office for Standards in Education.

In the preceding years, Hackney and the school had struggled jointly with the inheritance of the ILEA. Hackney says it gave the school support, and the evidence is certainly there: school inspections, an advisory head for a period, cushioning for small schools as local management was introduced. At Hackney Downs, there was a staff shake-out. Some left for other jobs; a significant number of middle management retired for reasons of ill health. There were plainly management problems, but a new staff was coming into being.

OFSTED produced a remarkable report. The inspectors laid out a programme for the school's development and just as important they provided an analysis. They went a great deal further than a conventional catalogue of problems, with its familiar concentrations on attendance, uneven teaching, unsatisfactory learning.

OFSTED posed the problem of mid-term admissions which had left the school with a disproportionate number of children with special educational needs, with insufficient borough support. They pointed out also the effects of the high number of staff with temporary contracts and the recent turnover of acting heads. Pupil behaviour was identified as crucial.

The team also commented on a new "ethos" coming into being and on the effectiveness of the new senior management team, led by the acting head, Betty Hales, who had been in post since March. The stage seemed set for developments. Unfortunately, just as momentum was building, in the week after the school's action plan had been submitted, Hackney pulled the plug.

Two processes then have been muddled and both matter equally in the situation which will confront the incoming educational association. On the one hand, the action plan has been implemented. On the other, the school's larger development has been on ice, while the council consulted over closure.

There is no question that improvements have been made. When HM inspectors paid their return monitoring visit in March this year, they noted improvements on all the points of the school's action plan. They referred to the clear direction of the acting head and the collaboration between staff in addressing common difficulties.

HMI also pointed to low GCSE results last year, an exceptional year as it happens, and to gaps between teaching and learning, and to unevenness persisting. But the message was that these problems would be overcome, given the course which the school was pursuing. Coincidentally, the school's roll had fallen to around 250. I need to stress, though, that the fall was not a consequence of unpopularity nor of children moving under the threat of closure.

Back in 1993, Hackney and the school's governors proposed to the then Department for Education that Hackney Downs become a mixed school. The school agreed not to take a Year 7 in 19945 in order to refurbish and prepare the buildings.

When this proposal was turned down by the DFE in March, there would still have been time to recruit for September 1994, if the authority had been prepared to let this happen. There may have been good reasons still for saying "no", but it meant that the school took no Year 7 in either 1994 or 1995.

Meanwhile, the process of closure moved on. The main consequence of the move was to divide a majority of governors from the borough; and then in due course, as the decision was reversed, the officers from the members and the members among themselves. How will Britain's first educational association manage? What will be the future for the school and Hackney?

Through to March this year, the borough was moving steadily ahead. The closure notices were issued. The period for hearing objections was under way. Then the process foundered. Frankly, it collapsed through the weakness of the educational arguments, given a school which was seen to be improving, and because of the way it had been treated. It took until the end of June, but by then a new leadership had been elected in Hackney Town Hall and the closure decision was reversed.

Such a history leaves divisions. The officers must feel that their advice has been rejected by a new Hackney leadership which might be replaced. Members, meanwhile, and Hackney Down's former governors, myself included, expect officers to accept a new borough policy. Imposing an educational association does not resolve the local situation. It adds another player.

Inevitably, whichever of the options is chosen by the EA, it will have an impact locally. Whether the EA consolidates present improvements, closes the school or changes its character will affect not only Hackney Downs but other schools. If the school stays open, it is inconceivable that it can do so without access to local services.

On the edges of all this, there are other schools trying to calculate a future. The best future for all could be a wider secondary review, in which Hackney Downs would have a part.

Hackney Downs is not the worst comprehensive in Britain, and nor is Hackney the worst authority. Both have been entangled in the thickets of John Patten's 1993 legislation and in the difficult inheritance caused by the ending of the ILEA. The question for the first EA in Britain is how to avoid replicating all the earlier Hackney arguments and whether it is capable of playing the complicated, local, role which has inevitably been allocated to it.

Tony Burgess is, until September, chair of governors at Hackney Downs school and a reader in education at the Institute of Education, London University.

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