The school that had to die

17th November 1995 at 00:00
Michael Barber, a member of the education association that recommended the closure of the once illustrious Hackney Downs school, explains why there was no alternative.

STORY: Recommending the closure of a once great London school in the full glare of publicity as we have done at Hackney Downs is inevitably controversial.

As the education association working with the staff and the Hackney education authority set about the crucial task of reassuring parents and arranging the smoothest possible transfer of the boys from Hackney Downs to nearby Homerton House school, it is worth reflecting on the implications of our report. In a rapidly changing world, it is important to evaluate policy even as it is implemented.

When historians in the future look back on 1995, I believe they will point to it as the year in which a seismic shift in the culture became apparent. From the mid-19th century until the early 1990s, a substantial failure rate among schools, teachers and pupils was considered to be an inevitable and acceptable part of publicly-provided education.

Now all that has changed. A series of factors - the devolution of power to school level, the ever-increasing competence of headteachers and teachers, the pressure induced by the inspection process and the publication of performance data - has caused schools to be more keenly interested than ever in improvement. The profession and now the Government have begun to learn the lessons of 15 years of research into school effectiveness and improvement.

The Labour party led by its education spokesperson David Blunkett has stated its firm intention to argue for success for everyone and mean it, which in turn has required it to spell out how it will deal with failure. In short, 1995 is the year that failure at the rates we have known and accepted in the past became unacceptable. This helps to explain why the decision to close Hackney Downs has the support of both major parties at national level, most of the national press, the secondary heads in Hackney, and the vast but generally silent majority of teachers and parents in the borough.

The few who have argued in favour of keeping Hackney Downs school open appear unaware of the culture shift that is taking place. They are stalwart in their defence of the status quo: resolute in their view that schools should have an inalienable right to carry on failing: determined in promoting an alliance for inadequacy. Indeed, so keen are they to avoid a straightforward debate about educational quality that they have found it necessary to invent bizarre conspiracy theories to explain the closure decision and made unfounded attacks on other neighbouring schools.

Hackney Downs is not failing because of its intake. The evidence shows incontrovertibly that there are many schools with more disadvantaged intakes which are doing much better than it is. Moreover, Hackney Downs is under-performing with a pupil-teacher ratio of 8:1 and a per-pupil expenditure of Pounds 6,489 per year - three times the national average. How can what is effectively daylight robbery from other Hackney pupils be justified ad infinitum? Alternatively would Hackney Downs be likely to improve dramatically if these figures moved back towards more normal levels? The school is failing for many reasons: poor relations with the education authority, block-headed union militancy, lack of capital investment and instability, and lack of quality among the teachers have all contributed over the past decade. The present staff are, in part, victims of these factors.

The central issue, however, must be the pupils. If they were to stay in a school this troubled what prospects would they have of receiving the quality of education to which everyone should be entitled and they so desperately need?

Our view after examining a mass of written evidence, spending collectively 106 days in the school and taking the advice of three independent inspectors with experience of urban education was that the boys would have much better prospects at the evidently improving Homerton House school than at Hackney Downs which, given its present inadequacies, has little prospect of overcoming that decade of failure, conflict and uncertainty within the foreseeable future.

This, it seems to me, is the first lesson from the events currently unfolding: the quality of education provided for the pupils must surely be considered more important than the continued existence of a failing institution, however illustrious its past. A focus on the pupils and their entitlement throws the issue into clear relief.

Our report on Hackney Downs says, in effect, are the boys getting a good education at present? No. Could they get one in Hackney Downs within the foreseeable future? No. Could they get one in a nearby school with sufficient places? Yes. If that were done, would it be to the benefit of schools in Hackney in general? Yes.

As a result of their own tremendous efforts, the other secondary schools in the borough are improving. Keeping the school open would not only damage the education of any pupils left there; it would also leech precious resources away from the improving schools and possibly undermine their progress. Our report provides, painstakingly, the evidence on which each stage of our argument is based.

The second lesson is that proposals for closure will always meet opposition even where there is overwhelming evidence of the school's under-performance. This is partly because, especially in conservative (small 'c') Britain, people are always anxious about any change in the status quo.

Mainly it is because, in the case of most school closures in urban areas, rent-a-mob activists can be relied on to exploit the understandable and inevitable anxieties of parents and pupils for their own destructive political ends. Anyone with the interests of pupils in disadvantaged circumstances at heart needs to be prepared to stand up to that raucous but hollow opposition.

For local councillors, who are rightly sensitive to local opinion, the vociferous campaigns of handfuls of semi-professional fanatics present a major challenge. They should respond courageously. If they set out their stall for quality and standards and work to put them into practice they will, in the long run, win far greater popular backing than if they buckle every time the Socialist Workers' Party reaches for its strident placards. That surely is the lesson of the culture shift we are witnessing.

The third lesson is that the substantial degree of political consensus at national level about standards helps councillors and everyone else in these circumstances. If an individual school failure were to become an object of party-political controversy, the effect would be to create much greater uncertainty and perhaps a perpetuation of inadequacy. While party-political debate about education is both inevitable and right, surely from now on it will be in a context of acceptance by all parties that everyone is entitled to high standards?

In addition, there are many lessons in the Hackney Downs experience for any future education association. One is that the problems of one school cannot be solved in isolation. EAs will always need to build good working relations with other schools in an area and with the education authority. Closure, after all, is only possible and sensible, if other local schools are available and improving. Similarly the redevelopment of a school - giving it a fresh start, which may well be attractive in some circumstances - would also have consequences for other schools. If, by drawing away pupils, it would destabilise other improving schools it may solve one problem only to create others. An EA embarking on a fresh start would need to weigh all these factors.

These are immediate reflections on the recent past. No doubt they will be subjected to close scrutiny. Let's hope debate about whether to expect high standards of schools, whatever their circumstances, is over. On the other hand, debate about how best to raise expectations and standards across the system, has never been more important. The culture has changed, I believe, for ever. When we look back on 1995 we will not question the change except to ask why it took so long.

Michael Barber is dean of new initiatives at London University Institute of Education.

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