Pressure to fill hot seat in Hackney

7th November 1997 at 00:00
Nicolas Barnard reports as the troubled London borough looks likely to appoint an education chief

The appointment of an education director to lead Hackney's crisis-ridden schools seemed closer this week with the possibility of a compromise deal brokered between the London borough and the Government.

But confrontations still lie ahead, not least over what the new director's responsibilities will be. Hackney has threatened to reject out of hand the recommendations of the Government's "hit squad" to impose a traditional structure on the council and reunite its education and leisure services.

Chief executive Tony Elliston led the fightback, saying the improvement team's recommendations represent a return to the system that had demonstrably failed Hackney children.

But a day of furious behind-the-scenes activity led to the possibility of a compromise whereby councillors would advertise immediately for a director of education - agreed by all to be the single most pressing move.

Graham Lane, Local Government Association education chairman, hinted after meeting standards minister Stephen Byers that it could be enough to satisfy the Government - for now. "Once they've got somebody in on a permanent basis, he or she can talk about the kind of structure they want," he said.

Mr Elliston said the hung council was also keen to appoint quickly - and the appointee would report directly to him, as the improvement team demands. But a fundamental question remains - whether the job will be advertised with or without leisure in the remit.

Labour's decision to send its first LEA improvement team into the hothouse of Hackney politics was always likely to send temperatures yet higher. But still more controversy has been generated by the team's chairman, Richard Painter, faxing his report to the council an hour before meeting the press, and imposing a deadline of November 13 for approval to allow an appointment before Christmas.

The council's Tories, Liberal Democrats and the breakaway Hackney New Labour group say that they have been treated with contempt and that the six-page report contains little justification for its recommendations. Only the rump Labour group supports it.

But the divisions run deeper - and any apparent agreement over the urgent need to appoint masks huge differences of opinion over the council's entire education structure, which was reorganised earlier this year. The new structure is designed to encourage co-operation, facilitated by four executive directors who draw different policy areas together.

Everybody agrees the authority had almost ceased to function and a fundamental change of culture was needed to end the empire-building and enervating bureaucracy.

But Mr Painter believes only a traditional structure will impose coherence, direction and accountability. Mr Elliston believes only massive change will do the job, by sweeping away the old culture where "the only thing that ever gets delegated is the blame." Education director is the only senior post unfilled in Hackney.

Mr Elliston points to the success of the new structure in other authorities like Kirklees and says it has been misrepresented - not least in the post of education director, which he insists is not the third-tier post portrayed.

"Structural change is a very important way of achieving cultural change, especially in Hackney where people were not capable of making decisions and worked almost in separate organisations."

The Office for Standards in Education agrees that the new structure offers a "fresh start", but the way it has been done seems to betray all the old Hackney problems. Complaints are voiced - especially from school governors - of a lack of consultation. The Labour group says more options should have been put on the table.

Mr Elliston accepts that some restructuring consultations started late, but argues that many of the objections are from groups "with their own agenda".

The pace of change has been extraordinary - and it has needed to be. With the hit squad knocking, councillors have pushed ahead with sweeping changes to secondary schools, including reopening Hackney Downs (shut by the previous Painter-led hit squad) and making Clapton Girls' School mixed - in the teeth of opposition from the Muslim community which makes up 60 per cent of pupils.

Mr Elliston calls it a question of democracy. Have councillors debated these changes for a year, he asks, only to see an unelected hit squad sweep them away?

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