Ten years of constant revolution

24th August 2012 at 01:00
From the Murder Mile to Mossbourne and yummy mummies, Hackney's fortunes have turned around since the Learning Trust took the reins of its schools in 2002. As the trust prepares to return control to the local authority, Richard Vaughan reviews progress

In 2002, when Alan Wood was appointed chief executive of the Learning Trust, a new and controversial body tasked with taking away the running of Hackney's schools from the council, he said success could only be measured one way.

"We will know that we have been successful", Wood said a decade ago, "when Hackney parents, instead of fighting to get their children out of our schools, will be fighting to get them in."

To many of those parents, his words would have sounded hopelessly optimistic, risible even, given the state of schools in the deprived East London borough.

Few would have predicted that Hackney's primaries and secondaries could lift themselves from off the bottom, more or less, of every league table, to become the most improved in the country.

Fast-forward 10 years and Hackney is on its way to becoming one of the capital's most desirable areas. The once notorious Clapton, infamously known as Murder Mile a decade ago, is now home to "yummy mummies", organic delicatessens and farmers' markets. Before all this, when the Learning Trust was born, Hackney was suffering from years of neglect and was seen by many on the outside looking in as a no-go area.

Now the Learning Trust is preparing to hand back its responsibilities to the local authority after a transformational decade for the whole area.

The high crime and low aspirations at the beginning of this story were merely symptoms of a deeper malaise in Hackney at the time. At the turn of the millennium, Hackney Council was officially the worst local authority in England. Bankrupt and staring at a deficit of pound;40 million, it had frozen all spending in the borough. Leadership was non-existent, a point most aptly demonstrated when, in 1999, the council's former chief executive Tony Elliston was quoted as saying that Hackney was "always in the shit. It's just a question of how deep".

And in the country's worst local authority were the country's worst schools. However the statistics were sliced or diced, Hackney's schools stayed rooted at the foot of the national rankings. In 2000, Ofsted conducted its third and final inspection of the local authority's schools services, condemning them and damning the council as incapable of providing educational improvement in any form. An emergency press conference was called by then chief inspector Chris Woodhead, who demanded "radical change".

That change came two years later in the form of the Learning Trust, a not- for-profit organisation that was handed control of the running of Hackney's schools for 10 years. The trust was not part of the council and it was not accountable to local councillors. And that made it controversial, to say the least.

But looking back at when he first took up his position as the trust's chief executive, Wood describes Hackney Council as being a "basket case". "None of the schools would turn to the council for advice, because no one accepted that the council was the voice of clarity or authority. The only discussions that took place were arguments about why the roofs weren't being fixed. People only wanted to talk about infrastructure," he says.

"There was no one focusing on the quality of education and the local authority was not able to provide that lead."

At the time, 18 per cent of the borough's schools were in the worst inspection category and the proportion of pupils that went from a Hackney primary school to a Hackney secondary was just 57 per cent. That figure is more than 80 per cent today.

The trust was introduced on a wave of New Labour optimism. The prime minister Tony Blair was still muttering his "education, education, education" mantra, and radical interventions were being considered in a bid to shake up underperforming local authorities.

Ready to embrace the private sector like few governments before it, the Labour administration took the control of running schools out of the hands of local authorities across the country, from Islington to Bradford, and handed it to profit-making companies in the belief that this would lead to better performance.

The move did not enjoy widespread success, particularly in Bradford, where Serco, a private services company, took on that role. Private firms were resented for making a profit out of the school system. Keen to avoid this, the Learning Trust established itself as a not-for-profit venture.

"They thought that privatisation would lead to a conflict with headteachers," Wood says. "They thought that headteachers would be more likely to work with something that was not making a profit out of the education system."

Uncompromising stance

Once in place, the Learning Trust had to confront a malaise that had permeated the Hackney school system. Apart from the odd exceptional school, the overall standard of teachers was described by the trust as being "very modest", which meant that the least able teachers were educating the most underprivileged pupils.

Steve Belk, who was director of learning and standards at the trust for nine years, says there was a belief among schools that they were doing as well as they could with the pupils they had.

"It was, and still is, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country and there was a feeling (in schools) that they had more deprived children than in Barking or in Kensington and Chelsea," Belk says.

"But we were always ambitious. We always set out with the idea of making every school in Hackney an outstanding school, and to do that we have had to make some very difficult decisions. We've closed schools and we've federated schools. We have had to be quite brave."

The Learning Trust quickly developed an uncompromising reputation. Underperformance was not tolerated and heads, teaching staff and even officials within the trust itself were cut adrift in the name of improvement.

In a book published by the Learning Trust, entitled A Revolution in a Decade: ten out of ten, which documents the success story of Hackney's schools, Sian Davies, an executive principal with the Primary Advantage Federation, talks of how ruthless this transition became.

"It is brutal and it is harsh. People are upset; it's their mortgage, their family and their livelihood. But then it's also 230 children's futures and lives that are at risk," Davies says.

"Somebody, somewhere has got to make the decision about where that balance lies. And if the governing body won't do it and the headteacher doesn't do it then somebody has got to, because it is children's futures that are at stake."

As well as removing poorly performing heads and teachers, the trust closed two schools, the Homerton College of Technology and Kingsland Secondary School. "People didn't understand how we could close two schools that were only half-full. But they were failing schools," Wood says.

Hackney's school improvement plan could hardly have come at a better time. By the time the trust was established, Labour's lavish academies programme was in full swing, building multi-million-pound schools designed by some of the world's most famous architects.

Four brand new academies were created, starting with Year 7 groups. Among them was Mossbourne Community Academy, which has gone on to become one of the most successful state secondary schools in the country, the toast of politicians of every hue. The ability to establish entirely new schools undoubtedly gave the trust an advantage when it came to turning results around.

More money poured in thanks to the Building Schools for the Future programme, which handed the borough pound;175 million to improve its buildings. The investment in the schools, along with the improvement in teaching and learning, began to turn parents' heads. But the route taken by the trust drew severe criticism from classroom unions, particularly with the creation of the academies.

The NUT accused the trust of creating exam factories, and has criticised its hard-nosed approach to test scores.

One former head of a Hackney primary school described the borough as an "unhappy" place for a headteacher to be.

"There was not the support that was anticipated when the trust was created," the head says. "How many headteachers have vanished from the schools? The primary schools are not improving at the rate they would like, and look at the amount of staff who are leaving them. Heads are frightened for their jobs."

The Learning Trust has also come in for criticism over its use of executive heads and a perceived over-reliance on federations, such as the Best Start Federation, which has been accused of implementing a testing and target-focused regime under the trust's direction.

Production line

Before absorbing Whitmore Primary School in May last year, Best Start was faced with a walkout by 10 teachers who were concerned that their work- life balance would deteriorate once the federation took over.

Mark Lushington, the NUT's representative in Hackney, likens many of Hackney's schools to a Ford car production line. "It is as if pupils are now injected with education. They no longer learn, they have education injected into them and then they are tested to see if the education has taken, which is a bizarre way of looking at teaching."

And he questions whether the involvement of the Learning Trust was behind the change in Hackney's fortunes. "It's difficult to distinguish between the wider social movement that has taken place in this area, and the specific interventions from the trust," Lushington adds. "This area has become totally gentrified, there is a much broader social mix here now, you just have to look at the house prices around here."

No one who knows Hackney could deny the gentrification and the demographic changes that Lushington describes. Equally, though, no one could deny the huge improvements in the area's schools and the education they offer the area's pupils, even the most deprived.

And very many parents are now proud to send their children to school in Hackney, proud that theirs is one of the best school systems in Britain.

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