An innovative relationship between headteachers and a not-for-profit trust has succeeded in turning Hackney's struggling schools around. Anat Arkin reports
For an inner-city school to lure a headteacher away from one of the more scenic parts of rural England is an achievement. But for a school in Hackney to pull off this coup suggests that the east London borough is finally shaking off its reputation for having the worst education service in the country.
Keith Howdle was not put off by Hackney's negative image when after 20 years as a head in Cornwall, he decided to do something different and move to London. He had heard of the not-for-profit body running education in Hackney, and liked the sound of what it was doing. So when a headship at Sebright primary came up he applied and got the job at the school, which had serious weaknesses and was later put into special measures.
Almost two years on, Sebright is out of special measures and Mr Howdle has no regrets about moving to an area where schools work against a backdrop of high levels of poverty, pupil mobility and cultural diversity.
"It's been a challenge but it's also been hugely rewarding to work with children who are very up for learning," he says.
Pointing out that several other primaries in the borough have come out of special measures recently, with only one remaining, he adds: "It's been a pleasure to see that happening because I think it will start to change people's attitudes towards Hackney and they will see that the children here have huge potential and that the schools are starting to realise that potential."
The strongest evidence of this is in record improvements in GCSE results.
Over half the pupils in six of Hackney's eight secondary schools gained five or more good GCSEs this year: up from three schools last year, two in 2003 and just one in 2002, the year the Learning Trust took over responsibility for education in Hackney from the local council.
The trust was set up after the third Ofsted inspection of Hackney LEA in three years found that school improvement functions outsourced to a private contractor remained mostly unsatisfactory. The time had come for radical change, they said.
The obvious action would have been to privatise the LEA. But confronted with strong local opposition, ministers used statutory powers to transfer it and its staff to a new non-profit-making company.
According to Sir Mike Tomlinson, former chief inspector of schools and chair of the Learning Trust, this model, untried elsewhere, has contributed to the recent progress of Hackney's schools.
"The trust's structure has ensured that we have a single focus on education and will not be diverted from that," he says.
But Sir Mike stresses that improved performance owes more to raising young people's aspirations and expectations than to the trust's structure.
The trust's 14 directors include two - soon to be three - heads. This, and other measures to involve them in decision-making, seems to be helping the trust win support that eluded the old LEA.
Cheryl Day, head of Clapton girls' technology college, believes the trust has had a positive impact because it is prepared to work with schools.
Her own school, where more than half the 900 pupils are eligible for free meals and 70 per cent have English as an additional language, has seen a steady improvement in GCSE results. Pupils gaining five or more A*-C grades is up from 27 per cent in 2001 to 51 per cent this year.
"Most of the improvements are down to the hard work of the teachers and students here," she says. "But the Learning Trust has offered significant support in a variety of areas and is doing some really interesting things that you couldn't do as an individual school."
She gives the example of a programme that saw high-achieving students acting as ambassadors for Hackney in an advertising campaign.
Mark Emmerson, head of Stoke Newington comprehensive, values the financial stability that schools have as a result of Hackney council's 10-year contract with the trust, which states that funds earmarked for education can no longer be used to subsidise other services. He also thinks it helps that the trust is not out to make a profit.
But Mr Emmerson is critical of the trust's enthusiasm for city academies.
He argues that their admissions systems could skew the intakes of other schools, leaving them only with those pupils who do not manage to get up in time to take the academies' entrance tests or whose parents cannot afford the pricey uniforms.
Alan Wood, chief executive of the Learning Trust, makes no apologies for pursuing a controversial strategy that has already led to one academy, Mossbourne, opening its doors last year and which should lead to four more of these schools being set up over the next few years.
"We had a situation in 2002 where if you wanted to go to a mixed, non-selective, non-denominational school in Hackney, you had just one school to go to," Mr Wood explains. "By 2009, you will have the choice of six non-denominational comprehensives. Five of them will be academies, so we make no bones about that being a very important part of our strategy."
It is a strategy that he says has already led to "dramatic improvements" in all Hackney's secondary schools, which are now oversubscribed.