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No reprieve for Hackney Downs

Education associations can only be effective in turning round a handful of schools, a member of the team whose report led to the closure of Hackney Downs said this week.

The East End boys' comprehensive is the first of the country's failing schools to be closed but three others - Battersea Technology College, Phoenix High in Hammersmith, and Stratford grant-maintained school - are under scrutiny.

Michael Barber, professor of education at London University Institute of Education, said he was convinced the decision taken by the six-member education association over Hackney Downs was the right one. But he believes schools can be improved or closed and re-opened with new governors and intensive support from inspectors and the local authority provided the funds are available.

Hackney Downs was recommended for closure after being taken over by the Government-appointed North East London Education Association because it was deemed to be failing.

The Secretary of State has said she was "minded" to accept the EA's decision that the school should be closed next month and the pupils transferred to Homerton House, a boys' school one mile away. In theory interested parties can comment on the report until November 10, but it is unlikely that the outcome will change.

The EA said the parlous financial situation of the school - it has a potential deficit of Pounds 292,000 - the neglected and unsafe buildings, weak management and poor teaching led to the recommendation.

Professor Barber said: "Our initial concern was to improve the school, but once we had visited and saw the culture operating, we decided it was in the best interest of the boys to transfer.

"The financial situation meant that if we had let it stay open we would have had to make redundancies and the crisis would have deepened. I am convinced that we made the best decision both on moral and educational grounds.

"It is possible to imagine circumstances where an EA is the answer, but if you have a failing school the local education authority must be the preferred option. An EA is a last-resort measure and can only be applied to a handful of schools."

Gus John, Hackney's education director, had recommended that the school should be closed, but the decision was reversed following a town hall coup within the Labour group. It has been argued that the school was beyond recovery before the appointment of the six-member EA headed by Richard Painter, a chief executive of the ADT company's city technology college in Putney.

The EA gave itself three options - to keep Hackney Downs open as a grant-maintained school, to close it temporarily and reopen it with a new status (for example as a technology school or co-educational school) or to close it permanently.

The team's report said that while a small proportion of lessons were very good, the majority were "barely satisfactory, while some were very poor". Often the teacher expected very little from the pupils, except misbehaviour, and the pupils lived up to the expectation.

Lessons started late because boys drifted in at various times and the teacher spent most of the time trying to gain control while disruptive boys shouted loud and often coarse comments to each other across the class.

Mr Painter said: "Many of the staff seemed to believe that the school's circumstances are uniquely disadvantaged though, objectively, this is not the case. There are many other schools in similarly challenging circumstances. "

The report said the school's financial management was haphazard and not competent to take on the requirements of GM status. It said the cost of clearing unsafe buildings would be Pounds 2 million and Pounds 3m would be needed to bring the standard of buildings up to others in Hackney.

The 40 members of staff, who are employees of the EA, will lose their jobs. The cost of redundancy will be met by the Secretary of State from the proceeds of the sale of the Hackney Downs site and the EA recommends that the remainder be invested in secondary education in the borough. The council has been asked to assist in redeploying the staff.

Pupils should be transferred to Homerton House, with extra support for Year 11 boys who are taking their GCSEs and a further Pounds 1m to refurbish and develop Homerton House.

Geoffrey Dale, headteacher of Homerton, said he welcomed the boys: "When the council originally decided to close Hackney Downs we started to make plans to receive them."

Staff in Hackney Downs are bitter about the outcome. The long-running uncertainty has meant the school has not been allowed to recruit a Year 7 for the past two years and they blame Hackney Council for running the school down.

One senior member of staff said: "We have done our best for the boys and improvements under Betty Hales (the head) had been acknowledged. When the result of the report was announced in assembly the boys booed. They don't want to go to Homerton and laughed like drains when they were told it was supposed to be a better school. Our school even had marginally better results than Homerton. The EA members are part of the old guard and didn't approve of our style and culture. It is devastating for the staff. What sort of future can we expect with this round our necks?"

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