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Down but not out - yet

The fate of Hackney Downs, a once celebrated comprehensive, is now in the hands of a Government "hit squad". Nicholas Pyke reports. The Government has finally carried out its threat to create its first "hit squad", naming a team of six educationists and businessmen to take over the troubled Hackney Downs comprehensive.

The fate of the once illustrious school will be settled by October. It may survive as a grant-maintained school - possibly with a change of name and pupil intake - or be closed by the team, formally known as the North East London Education Association.

Hackney Downs was once considered one of the best secondary schools in London. But last year the all-boys school, which now has only 210 pupils, was judged to be failing. A damning report from inspectors cited many examples of poor and even bizarre behaviour, unacceptable academic standards, and high levels of truancy.

Nevertheless, Hackney council and the school's former governing body - now dismissed - have criticised the decision to send in the education association. The council and governors claim staff were on the way to solving the school's problems.

The EA's six-member team is led by Richard Painter who is chief executive of the ADT company's city technology college in south London, and an organisation called Industry in Education. Mr Painter will be paid about Pounds 250 a day.

Robin Squire, the junior minister who announced the decision to send in the EA, said: "No school will be allowed to fail and go on failing. If that requires a change of management, so be it.

"We have intervened as a last resort. We have more than 80 failing schools and this is the first time we have used the power. I think that demonstrates it is not a power we use lightly."

Tony Burgess, the former chair of the now disbanded governing body, expressed disappointment. He said that the school had been improving under the new acting headteacher and that recent comments from inspectors were encouraging.

"I very much regret the fact that the school has not been given a chance to prove itself," said Mr Burgess, a reader in education at London University's Institute of Education. "The latest plans drawn up by the school and the authority offered a very good basis for the school to go ahead."

Hackney Downs staff have been barred from speaking to the press, but are understood to be willing to work with the new team.

"The majority of the staff genuinely believe that the LEA and the school would have been able to carry through the action plan," said a senior teacher. "We would have preferred a period of stability. But we're more than willing to work positively with the education association."

The decision to send in the EA was reached after Hackney council told the Department for Education that it wanted to close the school. It cited the rapidly falling rolls and the school's decaying buildings.

But, following a vigorous campaign by the National Union of Teachers and a swing to the Left in the Town Hall's political leadership, this decision was overturned in June - against the advice of Hackney's senior officers.

And with these officers apparently reluctant to change their position, the Government decided that Hackney council would not be able to turn the school around, however good its intentions.

Professor Michael Barber, a member of Mr Painter's team and a former chair of education at Hackney, said that the education association is needed. "In the past the borough has done a good job with failing schools like Hackney Free and Parochial. But that was when the councillors were in harmony with their education officers.

"No central government in the late 20th century is going to allow petty local politics to get in the way of educational standards."

He doubted, however, that education associations would be widespread. "It is an expensive, high risk strategy but the fact that this first one has been established may encourage councillors in some other areas to take school improvement seriously."

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