Tough but right

3rd November 1995 at 00:00
Hackney Downs school is having a very public death. Labelled a failure by the Office for Standards in Education, it also became the first-ever school to be taken over by an education association. Worse still, the hit squad sent in has now decided that Hackney Downs is not even a suitable case for resuscitation as a grant-maintained school, but has recommended closure.

It is a bitter end for a school which saw very much better days during its long history, but it is not the only school ever to have been closed because it was no longer needed, or was doing badly, or a combination of both. Local education authorities have managed to close schools in the past without national headlines, though when they have done it themselves they have usually managed to damp down the anxieties of staff and parents through mergers and protected posts.

At Hackney Downs, the local borough council conspicuously failed to keep matters under its own control. Having called in the best advice over the years to help turn round a school destabilised by social conditions, union action and the break-up of the Inner London Education Authority, the LEA announced closure in March, then changed its political mind against the advice of its director of education. An ideal political opportunity was provided for the launch of hit squads.

The verdict is tough but right. The education association team were critical of the key areas of pupil behaviour, the physical environment, and the quality of management and learning, and found a parlous financial situation.

Apparently harshest of all was the recommendation that closure should take place at the end of this term, rather than in the summer after the existing Year l1 pupils have sat their GCSEs. Certainly the year ahead will be particularly demanding at the neighbouring Homerton House school designated to take on the 200-odd boys displaced from Hackney Downs, though the Education Secretary is likely to agree to generous extra funding, and the head had originally planned for extra numbers this September, after the borough council's original closure decision. It may be that the trickiest time of all will be the remaining weeks at Hackney Downs, with a demoralised staff and unsettled pupils. But the timing proposed looks the lesser evil, given the disproportionate funding going into the school, at the expense of other Hackney children.

Could the school have been saved eventually, given time, money and the will? The National Commission's final publication Success Against the Odds, which Margaret Maden previews in this issue (page 22), provides salutory reminders of the narrow line between success and failure, and of the effort and time it can take to cross it. The success stories in the book lift the spirits, but more than one had its black period.

Maybe Hackney Downs could eventually have been transformed, and would have been if the school had been really needed. But there are plenty of empty places in surrounding schools, and there cannot be much doubt that Gillian Shephard will agree after the consultation that today's pupils will get their best chance of a fresh start at the school next door.

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