Five years ago as acting head of the doomed Hackney Downs, she was staring into the abyss. Today Betty Hales has built a new reputation in a special school
When Hackney Downs school was branded an failing school and shut down in 1995, Betty Hales was its acting headteacher. By anyone's reckoning, the whole episode was a tragedy.
The staff at of the school, regardless of any individual responsibility, were inevitably tainted by tabloids' labelling of Hackney Downs as the "worst school in England."
Hales, you might think, should have been especially damaged; she was, after all, deputy head there for five and half years and acting head for the 22 months leading up to its closure.
"My career was certainly knocked back," she says. "I would have been head of a big secondary school now. After all, I became a deputy after nine years of teaching. I didn't start full-time until my daughter was four and I was 30."
What actually happened, though, is a classic case of one door opening as another closed. When Hackney Downs closed, she was recruited to work for Camden education authority, first as a consultant and latterly as the head of Chalcot special school for primary and secondary age boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties.
"This job found me," she says. "The more I worked here, the more I realised that this was a field in which I could achieve a lot of the things I had subconsciously been trying to achieve against the odds in mainstream. I suppose I've discovered by chance what I'm good at."
Chalcot boys are clearly difficult, having been damaged by the kind of childhood most people could barely imagine.
An air of volatility is unmistakeable there. Many boys have a familiar story to tell, which is all too often a litany of violent and abusive fathers, despairing mothers and often an association with drugs. Their behaviour, says Hales, has little or nothing in common with the kind of misbehaviour that most parents and teachers would have to deal with.
"What these children do isn't teenage rebellion," she says. "It's serious cries for help. Most of our boys have suffered neglect and emotional abuse. Two-thirds have been sexually abused."
Spend just a short time at Chalcot and you wonder how anyone finds the emotional and professional resources to do the job day after day in a building that dates back to the middle of the 19th century and is in need of major refurbishment.
This, you soon realise, is one strong woman. On top of the pressures of work, she has also had to fight education battles for her own three children. Her eldest boy, now in his mid-20s, is severely dyslexic and was one of the first children in his authority to have a special needs statement. Meanwhile, her youngest child attended a special school for two years because of a specific language difficulty. Having to attend to her family's needs has kept her from brooding about work troubles.
"I've had to live a life outside school and keep a sense of proportion," she says.
Hales grew up in the East End of London just after the war, when the housing shortage was desperate and people on the waiting list were being shuffled around a succession of rented rooms. She has early memories of sitting for hours in the housing office with her mother, waiting to see how far they had edged up the list.
"For the first six years of my life we were virtually homeless," she says. "In one of the lodgings the woman was a Nazi. She had a picture of Oswald Mosley on the stairs. One day my mother had sent for the doctor and she wouldn't let him in because he was a Jew. My mother straight away put all that we had in a pram and we all walked the four miles to my gran's house. We all lived together there in just the two rooms."
Out of all this, she reflects, there came "a passionate belief that education is important".
"It can be a ticket to getting your life sorted out. No matter what the social problems, if you can provide a child with an education you've given them something they can always fall back on, even if they don't think they need qualifications."
So she took what was then the traditional escape route for a working-class child - to Chingford County High School. There she became head girl and remembers being the only pupil with a Cockney accent.
When she left school, she worked for a short time as a computer programmer - an unusual occupation in 1968 - before going on to study physics at London's Bedford College, and teacher training followed that . and teacher training followed at Homerton College.
"Then I had three children," she says."So I had a series of part-time and evening-class jobs. My first full-time job, in 1979, was to open the physics department in a new school in Walthamstow. In the mid-80s, she became head of science at Little Ilford School in Newham; then came the deputy headship at Hackney Downs in 1990.
"I actively sought a job in Hackney," she says. "As a child there I had wanted to put something back. I wanted to work there and help it become a successful authority. I don't regret that decision. It was incredibly difficult, but it was a life experience and I would consider it a professional success."
There is no doubt, though, that the reality of life at Hackney Downs came as a shock.
"We were inundated with new children with severe behavioural needs. I was part of a senior management team coping with extreme problems. We were not given any assistance with this," she says.
What followed is now well documented. In fact, Hales has written a book about it. While there are plenty of theories about what went wrong at Hackney Downs, her view is that hard-working people were let down and that with support the school could and should have succeeded. Whatever else it did, the school brought her face to face with disturbed behaviour she had never previously encountered.
"It became my role to meet parents and I started to understand that these children do not choose to behave badly. Every child wants to succeed and be praised. Where they can't, there's a reason for it," she says.
At Chalcot, the issues are somewhat clearer. This is not a school in which teachers battle with a class of 30. Instead, there are small classes of extremely difficult boys and expectations are tailored to suit individual pupils. "If you were the sort of person who wanted to heal people and change their lives, then you'd get disillusioned," she says. "You have to be realistic, and see that there are limits to what you can achieve."
But Chalcot is far from being a youth club designed to keep difficult children off the streets. Neither is it a school for children with learning difficulties.
"These are bright kids, remember," she says. "We do the full national curriculum. Many are now getting GCSEs. Two of the Year 11 boys have jobs to go to this summer and the rest have college places."
Nevertheless, Hales is concerned about the shortage of places in schools such as Chalcot.
"There always seem to be about 120 children looking for places in London EBD schools. And what we see here is the tip of the iceberg," she says. "All mainstream schools need to be improving so they can manage these children, but even in the most adapted of them there will be children who cannot cope."
So it seems that Betty Hales has found her niche - for the time being at least. She says she loves working for Camden. At national level she has help to set up an association of EBD Schools. Last year, she spent two months in America on a Winston Churchill Fellowship looking at new ways of working with the parents of difficult children and young offenders.
For information on the National Association of EBD Schools, contact Elizabeth Hales at Chalcot School, Harmood Street, London NW1 8DP. Tel: 020 7485 2147. 'Hackney Downs: The School that Dared to Fight' by Maureen O'Connor, Elizabeth Hales, Jeffrey Davies and Sally Tomlinson. is published by Cassell at pound;12.99. See www.tes.co.uk for stories about Hackney Downs school, including an article by Michael Barber, who led the association that recommended closure.