Notoriety finds a voice of support

Josephine Gardiner discovers how Hackney schools are coping following the Government's decision to take over the service.

Most of Britain's national news-papers and television stations were besieging Hackney Town Hall last week for permission to visit a real live school in the country's most notorious education authority.

They all seem to have been directed to St Matthias primary, which duly appeared in every news bulletin, probably because its head, Chris Doyle, is one of the few prepared to defend the authority.

"OFSTED found this school to be failing in 1995 and we have been in special measures since January '96, but the authority has been supportive all along, offering monitoring and advice," he said.

He hopes the school will be judged favourably when the inspectors next visit in November: "We simply could not have changed the school so quickly without Hackney's support."

The school is on the western side of the borough, a part of London that estate agents have been trying to push for two decades as "the new Islington" but with little success.

Nevertheless, the pupil intake is more mixed than that of schools such as Morningside, and the surroundings less depressed. The parents, he says, were terribly shocked when the school was failed by OFSTED, but there was no mass exodus of pupils.

Mr Doyle attributes most of the improved performance to new teachers - three-quarters of the staff have changed since the school was first deemed to be failing.

Mr Doyle says he has had no difficulty attracting staff; if anything, he says, Hackney's rocky reputation and the fact that the school is in special measures appeals to teachers who like a challenge.

"We make it quite clear what they are coming into, and that scares some off, but others are positively attracted by the idea of working in a school that's in special measures. In the end, if the school is turned round, it will enhance their reputation and help their careers."

Chris Doyle has been working in Hackney since 1984 and insists it is "a great place to work". But although he has found the local authority helpful, he is under no illusions about the bizarre politics at the town hall: "I think they've lost sight of reality, of what their actions are doing to the community they are there to serve."

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