The head's view - Notorious schools call for radical acts

28th November 2008 at 00:00

Islington Green, one of the most notorious yet exciting flagship comprehensives in the days of the now defunct Inner London Education Authority, closed in August, after 42 years, to reopen as an academy.

The school became famous in 1979 when some of its fourth form (Year 10) pupils were recorded singing "We don't need no education" for Pink Floyd's Christmas No 1 single, "Another Brick in the Wall". The song's angry lyrics, an expression of songwriter Roger Waters' own schooling, became an anthem for rebellious and disaffected youth and chimed with the anti-establishment politics of the day.

The school's history neatly symbolises four decades of national education policy, culminating in Labour's school improvement agenda. It was proud of its 1960s brutalist architecture and mosaic art. With the furore that followed the Pink Floyd record - questions were asked in Parliament, and newspapers used it to attack the "loony left" politics of liberal Islington - the school became a byword for a state system that was failing to properly educate pupils.

In 1997, the school again became a centre of controversy when it was put into special measures by Chris Woodhead, then chief inspector at Ofsted. By this time, it had become the heartland of New Labour and had already attracted headlines when Tony Blair rejected it as a choice for his eldest son, Euan, prefering the Catholic London Oratory.

Ofsted's action led to an exodus of good staff and middle-class families from the school. But at least the Blair-led government was committed to education. Schools across the country enjoyed a doubling of resources over the next decade, benefiting inner-city schools such as Islington Green more than most.

In 2002, I was appointed as the school's head and, with the help of inspirational leaders and teachers, was able to reverse the school's decline. Subsequently Peter Hyman, Mr Blair's former speechwriter, joined the staff and together we started the process that was to see the school achieve academy status.

In September, Islington Green reopened as the City of London Academy, a necessary transformation, in my view. Islington Green was an example of how even the most iconic of schools can get locked into a cycle of decline - poor reputation, challenging intake, rejected by the middle classes and suffering from highly polarised viewpoints among professionals - from which it can prove impossible to recover.

The switch to academy status - in Islington and elsewhere - is not an admission that the great comprehensive experiment has failed, but rather that when schools are struggling there is a need for radical approaches. This is not evidence of Labour's confusion, simply an acknowledgement that one solution does not fit all.

Poverty in inner cities remains the great social and educational divide. Labour has radically and bravely extended its education policy. It remains at heart socialistic that both government and wealthy individuals have made a big investment in deprived city areas, sparing schools from the financial market, which can fail as spectacularly as government. The Government should extend its approach to the structure of schooling by encouraging more private and public partnerships, through which partners can bring innovation and top personnel to schools.Trevor Averre-Beeson, New UK project director for Edison Schools

Formerly executive head of Salisbury School (now Turin Grove School) in Edmonton, Enfield, north London.

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