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Tired of Hackney but not tired of life

Nadene Ghouri meets two refugees from the state sector who jumped ship to set up their own independent school.

"I've got an obsession about clean lavatories. We spent nine years at Hackney battling, and failing, to get our old, grim toilet blocks replaced. It's such a joy watching the children after lunch cleaning their little teeth in a neat row of sinks amid piles of clean, fluffy towels."

Until July, Lynn Hannay was deputy head of De Beauvoir primary - a 500-pupil school in the troubled east London borough of Hackney. Today she and De Beauvoir's former headteacher, Jeremy Rowe, are the proud co-directors of the Lyceum independent primary - a six-week-old, 21 pupil school in the swish banking heartland of London's Liverpool Street.

And although she isn't ashamed to admit that it's the little things such as clean toilet blocks which have helped her "feel human" again, there were several more deep-seated reasons why she and Mr Rowe "decided to stop moaning about what was wrong with teaching and find the courage to go for it our way".

She says: "It came to the point where Jeremy and I couldn't reconcile the quality of what we were forced to offer and the amount of time we spent tied up in needless bureaucracy that largely had nothing to do with teaching or classrooms. I was forever chasing up over-stressed teachers for reports which I thought a silly waste of time. We were unhappy middle managers."

So after years of "joking about it", Hannay and Rowe finally quit Hackney - just weeks before the Government "hit squad" went in.

Jeremy Rowe says: "I'm just delighted and relieved to be out of there, but that doesn't mean I'm not sorry for the kids I left behind."

Ms Hannay agrees: "I just feel so awful for ex-colleagues. There are some fantastic teachers in Hackney, but sadly even they will be left labelled as unemployable. We actually predicted this situation about a year ago, you could say our timing in getting out wasn't just coincidence."

In July, Hannay and Rowe's final month at De Beauvoir, the school received an "unsatisfactory" OFSTED report, which said that it had "serious weaknesses", and that management was poor. Senior managers operated "largely in isolation" leaving teachers feeling "threatened and insecure". Ms Hannay says: "The report had nothing to do with us leaving. We made the decision to go three years ago, but we knew the OFSTED inspection was coming and committed ourselves to seeing it through and also waiting until a new head was in place.."

The Lyceum has three teaching staff, Lynn Hannay, Jeremy Rowe and Sophie Johns, a young reception teacher from De Beauvoir. Fees are Pounds 1,200 a term, and pupil ages span four to 11. Mornings are spent on basic skills and curriculum topics, with afternoons for music, art and drama.

Ms Hannay explains: "I don't think the national curriculum is a complete no-no, but if anything we've taken the Scottish curriculum model, which is much more thematic and flexible. We both believe the lack of arts emphasis is the single biggest failing of the current national curriculum. Creativity feeds into academia, and that's our motto here."

Annette Downie has two daughters aged four and eight at the Lyceum. She says: "As a parent I'm thrilled. Lynn and Jeremy are two clearly talented teachers. In principle, I'd like my children to go to a state school, but the last one my eldest attended was a disaster."

However, not all the Lyceum's first intake are ex-state pupils. Almost half have come from the independent sector. This has surprised Lynn Hannay. She says: "It's easy to assume all is rosy out of state, but it's not. You know, we don't even have to employ qualified teachers if we don't want to. Of course, we'd never dream of doing otherwise. But I think parents need to realise the independent sector is not always a standards safeguard."

So how do two teachers who claim to remain committed to state education reconcile the transition from inner-city to independent?

Jeremy Rowe denies any suggestion the pair have sold out: "I've put all my retirement money into the Lyceum. I could easily have chosen to leave teaching altogether. Instead I've risked my entire livelihood. That is the opposite to selling out."

Lynn Hannay agrees: "I have spent 21 years in the state sector and never thought I'd leave it. I was pig-sick and constantly in a bad mood. Over the past five years I've seen three colleagues drop dead and several others go under with nervous breakdowns. Teaching is my life, but working in Hackney was killing me. This way I've regained both my personal and professional integrity. "

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