Glory of 119 years is fading

Nicholas Pyke

Hackney Downs has enjoyed a largely illustrious history, writes Nicholas Pyke. It was founded in 1876 by the Worshipful Company of Grocers and rapidly established itself as a traditional and successful school, serving the sons of merchants working in the City of London close by.

The influx of Jewish families from Eastern Europe in the first half of this century reshaped the local population and Jewish boys account for many of the famous graduates from the Grocers' - or Hackney Downs as it was renamed in the 40s. Alumni include: writer Harold Pinter; Alfred Sherman, co-founder of the Centre for Policy Studies; Lords Goodman and Peston; actors Michael Caine and Stephen Berkoff; Dr Michael Goldstein, vice-chancellor of Coventry University, and Gerry Berbaum, vice-chancellor of South Bank University.

The school's troubles started in the mid-1980s when, after problems over asbestos removal, it was closed for a year and put on an "at risk" register by the then Inner London Education Authority.

According to the staff, the school was neglected when the ILEA was abolished and Hackney council took over. Money for major repairs was not forthcoming, they say, while the borough was reluctant to appoint permanent staff. There have been four headteachers in the past three years, only one of whom had a permanent contract. Nearly 68 per cent of staff, including the current head Elizabeth Hales, hold temporary or acting posts.

Many parents responded by sending their children to other schools, say the staff, and pupil numbers dropped to 180, a high proportion of whom come from disaffected and troubled families. According to one senior teacher, as many as 10 per cent of the pupils require help from the psychological services.

Last August, the Office for Standards in Education produced a devastating report which, despite praising the staff, concluded that the school required "special measures".

Yet the inspectors also found a new sense of purpose and good staff morale, they said. The school's management had recently improved and working relationships between staff were good - a fragment of hope on which the future of Hackney Downs now rests.

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