The murder of Hackney Downs

1st December 1995 at 00:00
The staff of the condemned east London comprehensive argue that it was killed off despite showing clear signs of recovery. Hackney Downs School had a future. On June 28 this year, after nine months of campaigning and reasoned argument, supporters of the school had persuaded a clear majority of Hackney councillors to keep the school open. It was an historic victory. However the Government did not accept that democratic verdict and imposed an education association four weeks later to assess the future of the school.

The misnamed report "The Future of Hackney Downs School" shows a failure of imagination and a failure of nerve. Its contents suggest the six-person "hit squad" swallowed Government propaganda on surplus places and were given a heavy briefing along the lines of "don't support the school if it's not financially viable".

Michael Barber claims there was no alternative to closure ("The school that had to die", TES, November 17). In almost messianic tone he argued that 1995 represented "a seismic culture shift" where failure accepted for 150 years in "publicly provided education, would no longer be tolerated". This view begs enormous questions about the nature of state education, the meaning of success and failure.

Underachievement is undeniable. The majority of pupils do not go on to higher education. This shows the enormous influence of class in our education system. Britain's educational apartheid will continue until there is true equality of opportunity. It is a slur on teachers and educational reformers to say that failure has been tolerated since the mid-19th century. Despite long-standing inequalities, trends since the war have shown improvement - in numbers staying on, in exam passes, in literacy and other areas.

So where does Hackney Downs School fit into this process? The school was labelled a failure and since failure is unacceptable, it must close. What crude logic! Beware the hundreds of other schools similarly labelled .

Barber says the "few" who wanted to keep the school open were united in an "alliance for inadequacy". This is an insult to the vast majority of parents, the governors, teachers, the two local MPs, the wider community (2,500 signatures collected) and the council who wanted to keep the school open. Against this manifest support, Michael Barber counterposes the national parties and national press and a "silent majority of parents and teachers". The opinion of the press is unsurprising given its relationship with the Government but claiming the support of the silent majority is a classic desperate last resort.

Teachers did not wage a campaign of "block-headed union militancy", whatever that means. No child missed any schooling because of the campaign and teachers continued teaching and marking, despite the uncertainty provoked by the closure threat.

Teachers wanted the best for pupils. No one would deny the school had problems. But in accepting the recommendations of the July 1994 Office for Standards in Education report, the school had set about addressing these with its action plan which was accepted by the Department for Education and Employment. The follow-up inspection noted numerous areas of improvement and by June this year we had convinced the LEA to reverse its closure decision. So here was a school showing all the signs of a full recovery. But rather than help it along, the EA killed it off.

The historical record does not bear out Barber's claims. During the 1980s Hackney Downs School had been above average or average in the Inner London Education Authority exam rankings. The school had been an innovator. It was one of the first schools voluntarily to go comprehensive in the late 1960s. In the 1980s it pioneered the modern teaching of humanities as an integrated subject area; it pioneered collaborative learning techniques and anti-sexist education for boys. And it produced international sports champions like Dalton Grant and Eric Bristow.

The early 1990s were a more troubled period. Hackney Downs was a victim of its own success. Untouched by the amalgamations of local schools in the 1980s (from 16 to 10 secondary schools) its roll declined. But it had started to rise again and in 1993 reached 471 not far short of the local management of schools viability criterion.

At this point, given a permanent headteacher, stability, capital investment in unsafe buildings and targeted support for the disproportionate number of children with special educational needs, the school could have progressed. Instead, it had a freeze on recruitment of Year 7 for two years and no midterm entrants for the last year; a block on appointing a permanent head and finally in October 1994, came the proposal to close the school. The low roll was engineered by the LEA.

Michael Barber conveniently ignores this history when he asserts that other schools had a similarly disadvantaged intake and problems. No other school faced a closure threat. No other had such disproportionately high numbers of children with special needs, educational and behavioural problems and second language needs.

This history is not an excuse but an explanation. The school was not complacent. Its action plan provided the basis for full recovery. The recent Commission on Education report on failing schools, of which Michael Barber was a member, acknowledges that it takes time, money and stability to turn a school round - at least three years. Hackney Downs had neither this time nor the much needed capital investment. The commission also cites "strong leadership by head" as a first criteria for success. The school has been denied a permanent head since 1992, although the leadership of the current acting headteacher has been commended by OFSTED and HMIs. A further factor cited as essential for turning a school around is a close working relationship between school and parents. Hackney Downs has received overwhelming support from parents since October 1994.

No one denies the need for a subsidy. This was estimated at about Pounds 250,000 over the next two years until the school had reached viability under formula funding. Although this is no more than the financial cushioning promised (but later denied) to the governing body for the non-attendance of Year 7 arising out of the application to go co-educational.

Essentially, the report re-iterates much of the original Hackney Directorate closure proposals of October 1994. But Professor Barber goes further and swallows wholesale Government assertions about "surplus places", claiming that even after the closure of Hackney Downs there will be 1,700 spare places in the borough's secondary schools. Tell that to secondary schools in neighbouring boroughs where Michael Barber claims there are 7,000 surplus places. Tell that to Hackney LEA whose statistics from the last secondary review show it will need all of its 10 secondary schools by the end of the century. Professor Barber's claims are based on loaded Government statistics of the cubic capacity of classrooms. These, together with Government insistence that the problem is not large classes but poor teaching, are a travesty of the real situation.

Despite Michael Barber's professed concern for the pupils his recommendation to close at Christmas shows little understanding for pupils in the final few months before GCSEs when they need continuity of teachers, exam boards, and environment.

Michael Barber writes of widespread "poor quality of teaching". Where is the evidence? Staff have acknowledged that there were areas of weakness but these were addressed in the action plan . The March follow-up inspections recognised improvements. Indeed exam results for 1995 were not the worst in Hackney. Nationwide, more than a hundred schools got fewer A-C passes than Hackney Downs. The education association's own verdict was that there were some excellent lessons, a majority were satisfactory and a few were poor. The EA also hired three HMIs. Positive verbal feedback was given to a majority of teachers. Indeed one of the inspector's written reports commends the teaching and learning as being of a high standard in three of the four subjects inspected. This is without taking into account the range of learning needs and behavioural difficulties displayed by a large number of pupils. OFSTED identified "extreme and bizarre behaviour" from some pupils. They said these "behaviour patterns were beyond the remit of sustained and reasonable efforts of the staff". In fact, one of the EA team acknowledged that he himself would have been unable to do any better.

The school was confident of moving forward. Parents and staff, governors and borough council shared that view. Over a two to three-year period, it could regain pupil numbers and at least average academic achievement. Cushioning of staff numbers would have subsided as pupil numbers rose.

All the talk of "conservatism" in refusing to change, of "rent-a-mobs", "raucous and hollow opposition to closure" is a pathetic smokescreen to disguise the fact that the school's proposals for the future did accept the need for change and did outline a route to recovery .

Michael Barber talks fatalistically about why the school had to die, without acknowledging the sure signs of life and progress the school exhibited to any unbiased observer. The closure was not sympathetic euthanasia but premeditated murder by the Government with an instrument of its own creation .

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