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The man who axed 66 London schools

David Mallen, who was rather unpopular the last time rolls fell in the 1980s, has some tips for LEAs today, says Nic Barnard

If it's Thursday, this must be Hackney.

David Mallen attended more than 250 meetings as he carried out one of the biggest programmes of school closures the country has ever seen. As assistant education officer at the Inner London Education Authority, he saw 66 of its 210 secondary schools - almost one in three - disappear.

"No authority has ever closed as many schools as that in such a limited period," he says now. "I wouldn't want to relive that period of my life, but it had to be done. I think I did about 250 meetings altogether. There were times when I thought, if it's Thursday I must be in Hackney.

"Some of them were calm and rational, but a hell of a lot were stormy.

People would always claim we weren't listening and it was all a farce. I could counter that by pointing out that in each case we had actually changed our proposals. So it did demonstrate it wasn't a waste of time."

In 1980s London, a declining birth rate was compounded by an exodus of families to the suburbs and new towns. "I used to go to lots of meetings explaining the nature of the problem. That was harder to do than you might imagine because a lot of people claimed that the birth rate was going to go up.

"Then we issued our draft proposals and went to a whole series of more meetings to discuss them."

This two-stage approach was echoed in Warwickshire where the then-chief education officer Margaret Maden decided on a countywide overhaul of the first and middle school system.

"It was a massive undertaking. I'm not sure we'd have done it if we'd known it was that big. But I think it was worth it," she says.

Warwickshire lost about a fifth of its 300 primary schools in that review.

"It was traumatic. Nobody likes school closures. All the meetings around the county were hostile and there were some quite nasty dialogues."

Professor Maden and Mr Mallen can offer some advice to LEAs undertaking similar feats this time round. Both rejected the laissez-faire philosophy of the time in favour of detailed planning. "If we'd just left it to market forces," Mr Mallen says, "the whole system would have just collapsed."

Warwickshire set up a project management team to oversee the process. "It's necessary to spend in order to save," Professor Maden says.

Rather than simply weed out weaker schools, both tried to analyse demographics to ensure children would have access to schools nearby.

"For schools up for closure or merger, we looked at where children already on roll lived," Professor Maden says. "We found huge numbers of schools where children were being brought seven or eight miles by car, sometimes from the edge of Birmingham or Coventry." Schools serving local families were looked on more favourably.

Not all London teachers were impressed by the ILEA's efforts. John Bangs, now head of education at the National Union of Teachers but then a young Tower Hamlets art teacher, says many amalgamations were botched.

"You don't win a lot of votes," Mr Mallen admits. "But professionally, I have to be quite honest: I don't think I did anything more significant in my whole career."

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