Closure judgment must not be last word
The story of the closure and the discreditable treatment of pupils, parents and staff at the school could not, in the rush for closure, be brought to the attention of the court.
The case was heard on Friday, December 7, and Monday, December 11, 1995, by Mr Justice Popplewell, and an appeal heard on December 19. Legal aid was not granted until Tuesday, December 4, and the lawyers for the parents and children had only two days to prepare their case.
As I had followed the fortunes of the school during the 1990s and studied both the education association report and other documents relating to the school, I acted as a professional witness for the applicants. The applicants were white parents and their Year 11 sons, angry and despairing that they were being forced to change school half-way through their GCSE year. A number of black pupils and parents, who felt similarly, declined to attend the court proceedings, indicating some cynicism about the whole legal process.
Despite the short time for preparation, Mr Justice Popplewell described the case presented against closure as "formidable" and concentrated on the issues of consultation, rather than the disruption of the boys' education. He concluded that there is no statutory obligation on the Secretary of State or on an education association to consult anyone about their decisions, indeed "the absence of a statutory obligation to consult is very marked".
The parents and staff were therefore fortunate to have had 10 days in which to object to the proposed closure and consider the future of the pupils. During that period a number of parents enrolled their boys at other local schools but were then directed by Hackney education authority to send them to Homerton House school.
This direct interference with parental choice, although brought to the attention of the court, was not mentioned in the judgment. Mr Justice Popplewell conceded that "what are described as the school's league tables" showed that Homerton House A-C grades had fallen in 1995 but accepted the Secretary of State's view that "a school's GCSE results are susceptible to annual variations according to the abilities and performance of that year's pupils" - a view that may surprise many teachers more used to being held solely responsible for ensuring that "league table" results always improve.
The appeal court judgment managed to run together the issue of consultation on closure and the boys' education, overriding parental and pupil views that their educational needs were being met at Hackney Downs, and arguing that the boys "needed" to be moved quickly and that no rigid consultation period was needed.
The appeal court considered there had been enough previous consultation, attaching no weight to evidence that on June 28, 1995, a democratically-elected council had decided to keep the school open and support it, which should have made any consultation prior to that date redundant, or to the support for keeping the school open, demonstrated during the time the education association was in control.
The judgment on Hackney Downs must not be the last word. The wider issue here is how we deal with schools, attended by disadvantaged students, which need help to improve the education they offer. To do it, the Hackney Downs way is not the answer.
PROFESSOR SALLY TOMLINSON
University of London