The Mossbourne identity

9th March 2007 at 00:00
Outside, there's a world of murderous gangs; inside, there are strict uniform rules and discipline. An academy built on the site of Hackney Downs has no corners or corridors where bullies can hide. William Stewart paid a visit

Hemmed in by railway tracks and council estates, the sheer blue wall of Mossbourne academy rises up from a site once synonymous with educational failure.

More than a decade after the closure of the notorious Hackney Downs school, its replacement is swiftly attracting a very different reputation.

Nick Gibb, the Conservatives' education spokesman, describes it as, "the best comprehensive I have ever seen".

And he is not alone. The jury may still be out on academies following last month's mixed National Audit Office verdict, but Hackney's first, opened in 2004, has already been judged a winner.

Mossbourne's outstanding achievement, teaching, curriculum, leadership and pastoral care saw Ofsted inspectors deliver a near perfect report last September.

It is where Tony Blair turns to justify his controversial decision to create a "post-comprehensive era". With a zero-tolerance uniform policy, which saw a boy kept out of mainstream classes for a week for wearing black suede shoes, the east London secondary holds a strong appeal for traditionalists. "They teach Latin, they have setting and pupils stand when teachers enter the room. It's like a grammar school," Mr Gibb enthuses.

There is rigorous discipline - pupils must line up outside facing the front, before silently entering in single file. Then they must recite a pledge after the start of every class ("Throughout this lesson, I aspire to maintain an inquiring mind, a calm disposition and an attentive ear so that in this class, and all classes, I can fulfil my true potential.") But that is only half the story.

Despite its red-trimmed blazers and the Union flag fluttering at the entrance, Mossbourne is not a 1950s throwback. Cutting-edge computer equipment awaits them. and they are as likely to find themselves creating hip-hop as reciting hic haec hoc.

It is definitely not a grammar. A banded admissions system, giving priority to local pupils, ensures the school, which has nearly six applicants for every place, takes the full range of ability, making it a comprehensive in the truest sense.

Critics argue that requiring prospective pupils to attend cognitive ability tests filters out those with the most feckless parents. But Sir Michael Wilshaw, Mossbourne's principal, says: "There are three opportunities for them to take the test, and even the most difficult parent can manage that."

With two-fifths of pupils lacking English as a first language, and the highest number of special educational needs statements in Hackney, it has a very similar intake to its infamous predecessor.

But Sir Michael is confident results will be radically different. This year's key stage 3 tests are expected to place it among the country's top 25 per cent.

"I want to demonstrate that Hackney children can do as well as those from anywhere else," he says.

If he succeeds, he will have achieved the holy grail of English education: an inner city comprehensive with a "tough" intake achieving results up there with the leafy suburbs.

But Sir Michael insists there is no magic formula. "It is about recruiting and retaining the right staff and it is about intensive support for the weakest children, and good behaviour systems," he says.

The iconic V-shaped building designed by Richard Rogers helps: there are no corridors or bully-friendly corners, and clear sightlines from the small departmental staffrooms.

David Maxfield, vice-principal, says the absence of a central staffroom is a "big benefit".

"It means teachers are visible rather than locking themselves away," he says. "There was a fear that learning areas (departments) would become isolated and we would have seven separate teams. But that hasn't happened.

We have quite a good social committee and are all going to see Dirty Dancing next week."

In two-and-a-half years there has been one permanent exclusion. But constant vigilance is needed in a school just seconds from a road tagged "murder mile" because of its multiple gangland shootings.

Sir Michael concedes that the potential for trouble is ever-present: "The gang culture is out there, but I am lucky that I've got a set of teachers who are prepared to put their safety on the line by waiting at bus stops to make sure pupils leave the school site safely."

The freedom offered to academies has been crucial in allowing him to retain those staff, and pay them extra for coming in to take Saturday morning sessions and run a 27 instead of 25-hour teaching week.

But the school's semi-independent status has not been at the forefront of teachers' minds. "All schools are different, and so are academies," says Clare Cassidy, head of science.

Mossbourne has been able to develop its own ethos from scratch, building up from an initial 200 pupils - last September they became Year 9s - it now has 614 in three years. Sir Michael admits that taking over an existing school, as other academies have had to, would make it a tougher job.

But the principal, who proudly displays a photo of himself with Mr Blair and a Christmas card from No 10 in his office, is convinced the Prime Minister's faith in academies will be repaid.

"When history is written," he says, "I believe it will say that academies made a difference to inner-city education."


Founded in 1876 by the Worshipful Company of Grocers, Hackney Downs was a boys' grammar with a good reputation. Alumni included playwrights Harold Pinter and Steven Berkoff and film star Michael Caine.

It went comprehensive in 1974 and pioneered a curriculum aimed at London's new immigrant pupils.

Problems emerged in the mid-1980s as industrial action created division between teachers and management. A fire and closure for nearly a year because of asbestos helped push the roll down to 450 pupils.

By its 1990 handover from the Inner London Education Authority to Hackney, it was "at risk". An inspection report in 1994 described a "constant undertow of poor, bizarre and provocative behaviour", poor teaching and low achievement.

A year later, it was the first school to be shut down by an education "hit squad", which cited pupil behaviour, weak management, poor teaching, neglected and unsafe buildings and a parlous financial situation.

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