Bad timing

4th August 1995 at 01:00
Hackney council's crucial mistake may have been bad timing. After all the long and chequered history of Hackney Downs School, after too many uncertain attempts to salvage its standards, the borough council finally decided to reverse a closure decision just as the Government was ready to take action on failing schools.

Setting up an education association is not such an easy option as John Patten imagined when, as Education Secretary, he had a vision of flying hit squads for his 1993 Education Act. Though some local education authorities have neglected failing schools, most have tried (sometimes successfully) to turn around their hardest cases. It will not be easy for a hit squad to succeed where the local team has failed. Nor, since lasting improvement takes time, could a quick fix be convincing.

As to Mr Patten's notion that grant-maintained status solves everything, that ignores the inconvenient truth that a failing school - almost by definition - has indifferent management and community support. Both may need replacing if a school is to go it alone, but galvanising disaffected parents is a harder trick than drafting in new heads.

So the potential for the Government to get egg on its face is high, and Gillian Shephard has until now been reluctant to use the ultimate weapon. It didn't help that the most obvious candidate for the treatment was Stratford School, also in East London, and embarrassingly already grant-maintained and therefore not eligible under the legislation.

In fact, Stratford's governing body has now been so stiffened by former heads that it has in effect its own hit squad in situ. Hackney Downs isn't really the first. And both schools can expect life-or-death decisions in the autumn, which may not be a coincidence.

But meanwhile Ministers have latched on to the school improvement movement, setting up a panel notably drawn from the educational rather than the business or political worlds, and recycling training grant money to focus it where it is most needed to raise standards. It has been a welcome acknowledgment that improvements in quality cannot be delivered through gimmicks, establishing clearly that the Government will no longer countenance the failure and drift that puts children's schooling as risk.

So Hackney chose just the wrong moment to change its political mind and reprieve a school already run down towards closure. Hesitant though Mrs Shephard may have been to set up her first education association, she was certainly opportunist enough to show that she meant business, As Michael Barber - now a key figure in the Hackney Downs drama - observes, it serves notice on all councils that the old political bargaining over educational decisions will no longer do. Now on the Government's school improvement team, Professor Barber has also had a spell as chairman of Hackney's education committee and therefore brings essential local knowledge to the North East London Education Association.

Although its remit only runs to Hackney Downs, the grander title is apposite since any verdict on the school's future will have its impact on others in the area. Hackney's own decision to keep the school open in dilapidated premises with 200-odd pupils inevitably draws in disproportionate resources, and other local schools with empty places were already planning to take in displaced pupils. And, if a decision is made to save the school or change its character, that too will have its effect on the educational ecology of the district.

The school's rise and fall has been attributed by some to the switch from grammar to comprehensive status, but really its history has matched the social history of the area, as it moved from its City beginnings to cater for the children of ambitious Jewish immigrants, and then into a racially-mixed era of high unemployment and hopelessness. As Lord Peston, distinguished old boy and later education adviser to Labour ministers, has observed, in the early days of comprehensives nobody envisaged the dramatic changes in social conditions to come.

Another critical factor for Hackney Downs was the teachers' industrial action of the mid-80s, most devastating in the Inner London Education Authority, where the political leadership allied to the Far Left excesses of the Inner London Teachers' Association made many schools ungovernable, with Hackney among the worst hit.

By the time the ILEA was broken up in l990, Hackney Downs was already in deep trouble. Hackney's own attempts to turn it round had little success, though inspectors have reported some progress under the current acting head. The question now is not simply whether Hackney Downs could or should be saved, but whether it is simply too late.

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