Hackney deserves better

19th September 1997 at 01:00
Hackney Council officers suffered one of their many embarrassments last January after inviting three Conservative ministers to watch them demonstrate how easy it was to kick in the door of a pre-war council house. For five minutes three council workers kicked and battered at the door, but it refused to budge. Then, just after the bemused ministers had turned to leave, the old door gave up its resistance and fell flat on its back.

As this week's events have again showed, Labour ministers would not have been so patient. Frustrated by the London borough's inability to put its education house in order they are sending in a euphemistically-named "improvement team".

The news has been greeted by banner headlines, but in truth this is one of the less shocking developments that Hackney's education service has witnessed in recent years. Graham Lane, chair of the Local Government Association's education committee, says that the problems that led to this week's announcement have been bubbling up over the past two years.

But, as he must know, Hackney has been on the critical list for a lot longer than that. Back in 1988, the borough accused The TES of unfairness for suggesting that it was not making the necessary preparations for life after the Inner London Education Authority. But two years later, when Hackney had to go it alone, teachers and other education staff were left without wages for seven weeks because the payroll department was in such chaos. Almost simultaneously, HMI presented a grim report which revealed that 11 of the schools they had inspected over the previous 18 months were "at risk" of failing.

Ironically, the borough's chair of education for part of this lead-up was a certain Michael Barber. Neither he nor the council could be blamed for those particular statistics, of course. They were part of its inheritance from the ILEA. Nevertheless, many pundits who were aware of the bitter divisions within the ruling Labour group, and its history of incompetence, were predicting in 1990 that Hackney LEA was the fledgling authority least likely to succeed. So it has proved.

Truancy figures and GCSE results may have improved, but there have also been some spectacular failures, notably the Government-ordered closure of Hackney Downs school. The year-long delay in appointing a successor to Gus John, the former chief education officer, is another unforgivable failing which has contributed to the debacle. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does good government.

There must now be some unease at the idea of central government putting its hobnailed boot to the door of perhaps the most impoverished borough in the land - but once the Office for Standards in Education report became public, ministers had little choice.

As is typical of almost any issue involving Hackney, there are a host of competing interpretations of the Government's move. Some see it as the ruthless scapegoating of a borough which has always been a thorn in Labour's side. Others view the intervention as no more than macho posturing in the run-up to the party conference season. Some Hackney councillors have warned the the Government to keep their hands off the borough's schools; others have been pleading with the Secretary of State to intervene. It is far from clear if the Government itself really relishes being dragged into the political shambles which the borough currently represents.

One element, though, emerges clearly from the morass. The 10,000 children of Hackney deserve better than this. The Government is right to try to make sure that they get it.

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