'They said I was bonkers'

29th October 2004 at 01:00
One taste of your River Cafe lunch tells you this is no ordinary comp. Susan Macdonald on the academy that has risen from the ashes of the infamous Hackney Downs school

Sitting in the restaurant of Hackney's sparkling new academy, Clive Bourne, its sponsor, recalls the reaction at a 2002 public meeting when he declared that he would build a replacement for the notorious Hackney Downs school within two years. "A woman stood up and said: 'Now listen here boy, you obviously know nothing about Hackney - we can't even get a public lavatory built in two years'."

But Mr Bourne does know Hackney: he was born and brought up here, before going on to make a fortune in the freight business - which is why he wanted put in time and more than pound;2 million of his money to found one of the new state-funded independent schools there.

True to his word, this September Mossbourne community academy - named after Mr Bourne's father - rose from the ashes of the demolished Hackney Downs to admit its first intake of 180 Year 7 pupils.

Numbers will expand with each annual Year 7 intake, until the school reaches its capacity of 900 11 to 16-year-olds. A planned sixth form, will increase this figure to 1,000-plus by 2010.

Sir Michael Wilshaw,the principal, is proud to be part of a project he believes will be a turning point for Hackney's troubled schools. So bad is the council's track record in this area that Mr Bourne only got involved on the condition that he had no dealings with it. He didn't need to: all contact is through The Learning Trust, the not-for-profit independent body, which took over running of schools from the council in 2002.

Knighted for services to education in 2000, Sir Michael's previous headship was at Newham's St Bonaventure's school where Ofsted praised his "remarkable leadership".

"I was approached in 2002 to help with drawing up educational principles for Mossbourne and offering ideas on its design," he says. "Ivan Harbour, the Richard Rogers Partnership architect involved, wanted a design that was not only attractive, but functional. We got on well and he encouraged me to apply for the headship.

"It isn't every day that you get the chance to start with a blank piece of paper and an empty building site." Sir Michael and Mr Bourne have clearly worked closely to make it happen.

"Everyone said I was bonkers to get involved in a Hackney school, but I'm not a politician so I don't care who I upset in pushing things through," says Mr Bourne, who retired from his transport empire some five years ago.

"I don't know much about education - I left school when I was 15 - but I'm a great believer in it. I rang up Sir Richard Rogers because he was the most famous architect I'd heard of. I knew he was interested in regeneration and communal use of buildings, so I explained the purpose of our school and how I hoped it could also be used out of hours for adult education and sport - and he agreed to design it."

The publicity surrounding Mossbourne - the school now has a PR agency to handle media enquiries - means that its aims are well known.

Photos of Sir Michael and Mr Bourne, flanked by Sir Richard and Jamie Oliver, who is planting a herb garden, have given it a luvvie flavour.

And then there's the news that elite restaurant The River Cafe has drawn up the school menus, to be freshly cooked on-site in state-of the-art kitchens. No plates of burgers and chips in sight.

The facilities are enviable: from the cutting-edge ICT suites, to the music, science and technology, and sports areas to the clever use of space and glass.

Two lines of buildings meet in a V-shape, with the point of the "V" at the back, blocking out the local railway line, while the open-ended front overlooks the greenery of the Hackney Downs.

The design also lets the principal monitor children in the enormous outside sports and playground area from the front gate, as well as from his first-floor, glass-walled office.

"To eliminate bullying I asked that there be no enclosed corridors or hidden outside spaces," Sir Michael says. Year heads can view each floor of their sectors from their glass offices.

Unusually, there is no central staffroom, only sector ones. "I have always thought it strange that kids should be heading one way at break with staff going in the opposite direction," says Sir Michael. "This is a time when staff should be accessible to pupils, not shut away.

"We are considering having a six-term year and the learning week has been extended so that students can work on their strengths and weaknesses after school, staying behind for two weekly one-hour sessions," he says. Staff are paid more to work these longer hours, something vice-principal Veronica Carroll, says they are quite happy with.

Sir Michael is a firm believer in discipline. Rules include doing homework on time, punctuality, politeness and respect for teachers, including standing up for them and addressing them as "Sir" and "Miss". Failure to comply results in detentions, those who obey are praised.

Sir Michael rejects accusations of elitism from those in Hackney who would have preferred a good "bog-standard" comprehensive.

"Our pupils come from a variety of ethnic and social backgrounds, with 45 per cent eligible for free school meals. Parents have sacrificed much to send their children here - just buying the uniforms is a big expense," he says.

Ms Carroll is in charge of pastoral care, which covers discipline, welfare, social health, attendance and punctuality. Half a million pounds has been spent on setting up a system of home-school agreements. Parents must also sign and return a weekly planner of their child's activities.

Mr Bourne wields considerable power. He is both in charge of the budget and chair of the trustees.

A quarter of children have special needs. Sixty per cent come from the catchment area, with the other 40 per cent from outside. Places are allocated in ability bands, to ensure a mix.

There has been a rush to get children in and Mr Bourne says admissions is now the trustees' biggest problem, with some 800 parents being interviewed for next year's 200 places.

It's early days but while many parents are enthusiastic about the teaching methods, a few feel that children should be given time to adapt to the strict rules. Hackney is to get two more academies by 2006, and Mr Bourne, now an expert, is already advising the other two on the pitfalls.

Name: Mossbourne community academy

School type: All-ability non-selective, mixed secondary school

Total cost to the DfES: pound;25 million

Sponsor's contribution: More than pound;2 million

Number of pupils:180 in this first year. Should rise to around 1,000 by 2010

Proportion eligible for free school meals: 45 per cent

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