Unlikely alliance presides over chaos

Ministers have been left in little doubt about the crisis in the education service being run by Hackney. The report from the Office for Standards in Education chronicles a London borough that has lost most of its senior education officers and where decisions are taken by an unlikely alliance of councillors who split from the national Labour party to join Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.

According to the report, the education authority is in disarray, mainly as result of a failure of political will. Key management systems have broken down and the authority is not in a position to take the action required to restore confidence in the education service.

At present, some children do not have a school place, even though the authority has room. And, in some cases, schools are not being directed to take particular pupils, leaving them "at risk".

The problem of disruptive pupils remains to be tackled and the council needs to draft and implement a behaviour policy. In addition, Hackney has failed to ensure that primary schools are providing the full national curriculum, even where such breaches have been identified in inspections.

The report notes the poor quality of education offered in Hackney had been identified more than seven years ago when the borough took over from the Inner London Education Authority. Since then, there have been improvements; GCSE results are improving at a rate faster than the national average, but are still far behind. Only around third of 11-year-olds in Hackney achieve the appropriate level in English, maths and science.

Hackney is one of the poorest areas in western Europe and has the highest rate of unemployment in London. Census figures for 1993 show a third of households had a gross income of under Pounds 5,000. Two-thirds of pupils take free school meals and many have no English when they start school. While it may difficult, says the report, to overstate the day-to-day difficulties experienced by teachers and officials, it remains the case that many children are receiving poor quality schooling.

The OFSTED inspectors have not been into schools, but have produced their analysis from information provided by officials and the sifting of data and documents.

No specific reference is made to Gus John, who left the post of director of education more than a year ago. He is claiming unfair dismissal and is due to have his case heard by an industrial tribunal later in the year.

Hackney has effectively been without a director since March 1996, when Mr John took sick leave. In recent months, the chief executive, Tony Elliston, has reorganised the command structure and there is an executive director with responsibility for schools. The council is re-advertising the post of service director for schools.

There are doubts expressed in report about the effective use the large sums Hackney gets by way of special grant for its language and learning service. Copious sums, says the report, are also devoted to behaviour and exclusion, but there is no strategic management or clear guidance to schools.

The lack of political will to produce a coherent strategy or to define priorities stems from the divisions among the councillors originally elected as Labour members.

The divide has its roots in a row over whether Hackney council properly investigated the extent to which Mark Trotter, a gay social worker in the borough who recently died of Aids, was involved in offences against children in Hackney's care.

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