Labour's intervention in Hackney has enormous significance for local and central government. But, asks Neil Fletcher, will it ultimately help the children?
Central government's historic decision to tangle with local education government in the beleaguered shape of Hackney Council, raises questions about the real aim of the pedagogic task force now being assembled to sail to the municipal equivalent of the South Atlantic.
We can be fairly clear what is involved in David Blunkett and Steve Byers's brave decision to park their ministerial tanks on the Mare Street Town Hall lawn. What happens next could have a real significance for every local education authority in the country.
More than just an exercise in political arm-wrestling, Mr B and Mr B, in the name of central government, are challenging the right of local councils to administer the remaining education powers left them by Kenneth Baker in 1988.
The job given to the task force amounts to more than mere OFSTED. If Hackney continues to be intransigent, the Byers stratagem could yet turn from tough talking to Westminster diktat, followed by nothing less than annexation of the traditional borough homelands.
Hackney may just be one council out of 150 in England and Wales. But it often falls to the smallest and least defensible face in the crowd to stand up to the might of a new and assertive power - in this case a new Secretary of State with a mission. If it retains its independence at the end of the period of what in France might be called la cohabitation administratif Hakneienne, then local government in its totality, not just one London borough, may have seen off the worst threat to its autonomy since current arrangements began in 1944. But if not, then apr s Hackney le deluge.
Of course, there are risks and problems in this intervention for the Secretary of State. Can anything realistically be done in six months to improve standards in the 72 local schools? Without a director of education in post can new credible structures, and a change in culture really bed down and transform a large department? If the answer is no, the problem facing the two Mr Bs becomes more serious.
Can the task force then realistically swan off in January or next September leaving standards at rock bottom, its pupils entrusted to the care of a certified failing LEA? Does it stay? Or does the Department for Education take over the running of Hackney?
This would be unprecedented. But it could also be a dry run. This is why thinking about Hackney is concentrating local authority minds. For my part, and I speak as someone fortunate enough to have served a ten-year spell on the local government "top table", I hope we get more than a quick fix from the task force.
The elected members in Hackney have my sympathy and deserve support. They are not "loonies" or "crackpots" - although they follow many who were. But the only real concern is with the residents of what remains statistically the UK's most disadvantaged borough. I want them to enjoy the benefits of an education that can transform their prospects. They need nothing less.
I am reminded of a speech I gave, newly elected as leader of the Inner London Education Authority, 10 years ago at a Labour party conference fringe meeting in Brighton. It caused a media storm. I challenged the "producer ethos" of schools, and called for the needs of the customers to be paramount. I insisted that standards, not teachers' pay, be the top of Labour's education agenda. I asked that absolute equality of outcomes, irrespective of social class, should be a national target.
Some teacher associations, and some of their more extreme activists, were upset. I was picketed and heckled. But then the climate started to change, and the questions I was asking chimed with wider concerns about the nature of inner-city schooling, and gave way to the concept of a national curriculum (an idea which was called for by local authorities before it appeared in Kenneth Baker's White Paper).
At its simplest I was calling for a policy of social equalisation. Schools like those in Hackney and in several dozen other inner-city areas should not be "dumbed down". Unless education in these schools is nothing more than a preparation for life in the underclass, it needs to intervene.
Poor children are not less bright than richer ones. Intervention in their schooling is necessary until all pupils, irrespective of social class, score A- C grades at GCSE, perform equally well at A-level, and go on to university in similar proportions.
I doubt whether, from what I know of their schools, more than a couple of dozen 18-year-olds will be leaving Hackney for university this month. A few miles round the North Circular in Barnet, the number will be counted in hundreds. Yes, Hackney schools are failing: but so are schools for the poorest sections in society across the land.
I heard Sir Herman Ouseley last weekend ask three questions of the recent White Paper. Will it raise pupil achievement among those for whom English is not a first language? Will it help raise the attainment of Bangladeshi pupils? And will it reduce the disproportionate numbers of young African-Caribbean pupils being suspended from our schools?
At the very same conference I heard Professor David Hargreaves endorse the validity of Sir Herman's questions, while pointing out that they were precisely the key tasks he, in his pioneering survey "Improving ILEA's secondary schools", had identified in the 1980s.
Ten years on, what has changed? The task group in Hackney should make bold recommendations, using the borough's schools as its evidence. Certainly rigorous standard-setting and strong support from the council must be obligatory. But massive investments in inner-city schools everywhere are needed if standards are to be raised. Buildings, books, equipment, and specialist teachers on a Marshall Plan scale are required to rebuild everyone's faith in inner-city education. Money to pay and attract the best heads and managers, new centres for evening and weekend study, 24-hour computer access, and compensatory schemes of outdoor activities and facilities are all needed.
We need a learning culture and an entitlement curriculum on offer for every single pupil in our schools. None of this comes cheap. Which is why I wish the task force well. It might kick some sense into Hackney. But my profounder hope is that the message it sends back to the two Mr Bs, is one they can take to those two other Mr Bs, Messrs Blair and Brown. What a few dozen Hackneys need is a lot more of an even more important B - Brass.
Neil Fletcher was leader of the Inner London Education Authority from 1987-1990