Strange dawn at Morningside

26th September 1997 at 01:00
Josephine Gardiner discovers how Hackney schools are coping following the Government's decision to take over the service.

With its polished-wood and marble interior, generously-proportioned stone facade and flourishing muni-cipal flowerbeds, Hackney Town Hall looks like an oasis of civic pride in an area where the casual visitor would see little cause for satisfaction.

Morningside primary school is only a few streets away. "Carry on past the tower block until you come to the ruins; the school is on your right," advises a resident. The "ruins" turn out to be a derelict terrace of Victorian cottages and burnt-out shops.

The school fares rather better; the roof leaks, but the freshly-painted white interior resembles an artist's studio.

It is 3.30pm and the pupils are streaming out on to the tatty street in a wave of high spirits, seemingly oblivious to their environment.

Jean Millham, their headteacher, has one of the least apparently enviable jobs in education. Morningside is one of the 18 long-term failing schools that were "outed" by the incoming Labour Government and told to improve or close.

Morningside serves a particularly decayed pocket of a borough which is widely accepted as being one of the poorest urban areas in Western Europe.

Paradoxically, the publication of the Office for Standards in Education report on Hackney last Thursday lifted spirits at Morningside. Chief inspector Chris Woodhead, said on the BBC's Today programme that the school was showing signs of improvement, and repeated the remarks at a press conference the same day.

The announcement that the so-called hit squad sent in by the Government last week would include the former head of a Hackney school and a recently-retired director of education at the very similar borough of Tower Hamlets brought relief.

Jean Millham says: "Headship can be a very lonely job, even though you are surrounded by people. It means a lot to be able to telephone someone at the local authority who knows the score."

Hackney heads have already met to discuss last week's events, she says, and "will be happy to work with the new people if it means we can go on improving".

However, Jean Millham has mixed feelings about last week's publicity. It feels like yet another slap in the face for an already struggling area.

Although ministers emphasised that the local authority, not the teachers, is under fire, she said that "the trouble is that the general public, and parents in particular, don't make that distinction. They see the headlines about hit squads and as far as they are concerned, it's just the Government rubbishing Hackney schools again."

She feels she is asking for a lot of faith from parents who last term discovered that Morningside was on the "shame list".

She also fears that recruitment will be even more difficult. "Some think: 'If I stay in Hackney, who will want to employ me?', so they leave."

She worries how the children will react when they see their schools portrayed on TV as the worst in Britain. "Hackney children are great, they're very special, but they lack confidence; it's so important that they feel they can succeed." On the other hand, it is obvious that this headteacher has little sympathy for the way in which the local authority has been run recently.

She doesn't understand why there has been no education director for so long, or why the post was downgraded to "schools director". Nor does she see the point of focusing narrowly on schools as the OFSTED inspectors did.

She says there was a lack of communication, even on the eve of a crisis. "I only knew the report on the local authority was coming out on Thursday because the media told me. It was the same when we were 'named and shamed' - the heads were never told officially, we were just summoned to the town hall, and we sat down with the press officers to discuss it. It was the most devastating day of my life."

Despite the chief inspector's welcome remarks about Morningside, Jean Millham and the staff know they are not out of the woods yet. Test results have improved, with 32 per cent achieving level 4 or above in science compared to 7 per cent two years ago and similar leaps in English and maths, but , she says, "Of course it isn't good enough, it's just the beginning."

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