The closure of Hackney Downs school needn't have happened says a new study. John Dunford reveals how chaos turned to tragedy.
This important book is not only an invaluable contribution to the debate about the effectiveness of schools serving disadvantaged areas. It is also a well written and absorbing account of a school's fight for survival when so many factors were stacked against it. The authors include Betty Hales, head of the school at the time of the closure, and her deputy, Jeff Davies. Their introduction immediately captures the attention:
"This is a story of many strands: of market forces and their inevitable creation of 'sink' schools; of harsh cuts in educational spending in a deeply impoverished borough; of teacher militancy and unprofessionalism on one hand and of dedication and determination on the other; of political vacillation and opportunism; of neglect and incompetence; of accusations of bad faith; and of a community in desperate poverty which found the strength to fight for what it valued."
Blame is liberally distributed - to the Government, the Labour Party, Hackney Council, the school's Black Staff and Parents' Group, the schools' inspectorate, the education association (EA) which finally recommended closure, Professor Michael Barber (a member of the EA and former chairman of Hackney education committee), but most of all to the local education authority in Hackney.
Many of Hackney's education functions have now been privatised, but the shortcomings of Hackney LEA during the period of the decline of Hackney Downs are chronicled with great clarity.
The state of the Hackney Downs buildings, the handling of the closure recommendations, the lack of a headteacher on a permanent contract and the many staff on temporary contracts, the weak local inspectorate, the lack of support and many other shortcomings represent the worst manifestation of local democratic control of the education service.
There are moments of humour, such as the fate of the Office for Standards in
Education report on the school, so urgent that it was sent by motorcycle dispatch rider in
mid-August. The courier arrived after the school had closed for the day, and stuffed the report into a disused letterbox at the school gate. He even had to open the package and divide it up in order to fit it into the box.
But there are far more moments of tragedy - the succession of headteachers and staff who broke down under the strain of the impossible circumstances under which they were expected to work; the ignoring of the early signs that things might be going badly wrong; the failure to repair the appalling buildings; the charade of consultation on the school closure plans.
The school's mathematics department serves as an example of how there were no small problems at Hackney Downs, only crises and impossible situations. Even small incidents frequently exploded into major difficulties, often overlaid with accusations of racism and tensions between groups of staff. When the withdrawal of the resignation of the second teacher in the mathematics department was not accepted, the ensuing crisis led to the suspension and resignation of the head of department. Staffing in mathematics was precarious, and this made the situation considerably worse - one group of pupils had eight teachers in one term.
There are examples of heroism too - pupils getting good examination results; teachers succeeding in dreadful conditions and serving loyally for many years; managers making plans while dealing with disruptive children, malevolent parents, militant teachers, staffing shortages, an incompetent LEA and "the distorted megaphones of the tabloid press"; the headteacher working throughout the holidays.
This book stands in importance alongside Leila Berg's Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School (Penguin), Philip Toogood's book on Madeley Court in Telford (The Head's Tale, Dialogue Publications, 1984) and William Tyndale: The Teachers' Story by Terry Ellis and his colleagues from William Tyndale school in north London (Writers' and Readers' Publishing Co-operative, 1976). The authors found lessons to be drawn from the events at a single school. These form the concluding chapter.
The authors believe that, with financial and professional support, there was no reason why the educational fortunes of Hackney Downs School could not have been turned around, as has happened at many other schools in grave difficulties.
They question the attention-grabbing concept of the "failing" school; the "naming and
shaming" of Hackney Downs and others in November 1997; the system of school financing which allows a building to
deteriorate to the point at which no authority can repair it; the pressure of multiple accountability for a school in trouble; the staffing of schools labelled as "failing"; the role of the local
education authority; the short time given to improve a school in difficulty; the effect of market-based policies on schools in disadvantaged situations; the use made of school effectiveness research; and the effect on a school of increasing poverty, unemployment and deprivation.
The authors believe that the education association was a sham, established to close the school and unwilling to consider any positive reports on its progress. Few can doubt that Hackney Downs was used by the last Government as an example of its toughness. Once the EA had recommended immediate closure and the Government had achieved its limited objective, the concept of the EA was quietly buried, never to be used again.
The Government has found other ways to deal with schools in difficulties. We must strive to ensure that they are not, like Hackney Downs, failed rather than failing.
John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association.