Education: How the system failed a school

It's four years since Hackney Downs school was forced to shut down after years of very public pillorying as `Britain's Worst School'. But its long demise was no simple tale of poor teachers and lack of community support.
It is hard to turn inner city schools round. The market system of letting successful schools grow on demand does create sink schools where only the dispossesed usually seek refuge. Such schools do not just need inspection but prolonged investment and support or they are doomed. This was most spectacularly evidenced by Hackney Downs School in London, which closed its doors for the last time nearly four years ago.

The painful demise of the school which was dismissed by tabloid newspapers as that year's "worst school in Britain" and first victim of a government standards hit squad, is now the subject of a new book.

Hackney Downs started life as a prestigious grammar school; celebrity old boys included Michael Caine, Harold Pinter and Steven Berkoff. It went on to become one of the former Inner London Education Authority's star comprehensives in a deeply impoverished area of London. In the early Eighties it was being complimented by inspectors for its humane values and creativity. By 1985 there were rumblings that its academic performance was not good enough. By 1990, according to HMI, it was "at risk" and, although its exam results improved, by the end of 1995 it had only 200 boys in buildings so dilapidated that when it rained heavily the water cascaded down the main staircase.

The school's closure in December 1995 was a prolonged, torrid and very public affair. But among all the schools which have been pilloried for "failing" over the last 10 years, there has never been one for which local councillors, parents, staff, governors and even pupils fought harder. They only lost the battle at the 11th hour at an appeal hearing against the result of a judicial review in the High Court.

Four years down the line, it is still worth looking at the lessons of Hackney Downs for two reasons. Firstly, because so many of those who were involved still feel a burning sense of injustice at what occurred, and secondly, because the lessons do not support the received wisdom on which "school improvement" policies are being based.

The government-appointed Education Association, whose recommend- ation that the school close was finally ratified by the High Court, offered three reasons for its decision: financial mismanagement; the dilapidated state of the buildings - which would take about pounds 3m to put right - and the low standard of education being provided. Conventional wisdom now has it that schools "fail" largely because of the quality of the teaching. Yet two of the reasons for Hackney Downs' demise had nothing to do with the staff in the school when it closed. Financial responsibility for the school's budget passed first to the Hackney local education authority and then to the Education Association, moving from surplus to deficit, more than a year before it closed.

And Hackney Downs' buildings had deteriorated steadily for 10 years before closure as a backlog of repairs was allowed to accumulate until Her Majesty's Inspectors complained that the place had become "squalid".

Hackney was and still is one of the most impoverished boroughs in the UK. Its population is transient, ethnically mixed, burdened with unemployment, poor housing and ill-health. The number of single-parent and refugee families is very high.

The "market" in school places meant that as Hackney Downs declined it received such a high proportion of boys with special needs that it became, in its pupil composition, closer to a special school than even a secondary modern.

Hackney Downs was a grotesque example of the market at its most vicious, making teaching and learning harder with each term. As HMI commented, there were children in the school who were beyond the remit of any normal classroom. The same market affected teacher recruitment and, by the end of its life, it was staffed almost entirely by young teachers in the first few years of their careers. Incompetent? The Education Association certainly thought some were, though the fact that most of the staff have moved on to successful careers elsewhere suggests that they were not so very different from staff in many other London schools. They were certainly inexperienced, as was the management in a school which had four headteachers in its last five years of life.

But its detractors still argue that the inspection reports and the exam results proved that it was in deep trouble educationally. Up to a point, perhaps. Hackney Downs, during its last five years, must have been the most inspected school in the country. Most of the reports were dire but, significantly, they were improving. The last visit by HMI noted progress six months after the Ofsted report which designated the school as "failing". Crucially, two of the three reports of the Ofsted-registered inspectors brought in by the Education Association itself - until now unpublished - suggested that even in its last term some experts thought that the school could be saved.

It was a shaky platform upon which to close a school, pillory teachers and fling parental and community support back in the teeth of a neighbourhood not easily persuaded to support education in any shape or form. And it took no account of the difficult relationship between the school and its local education authority, which had allowed problems, including the unprofessional behaviour of a minority of ethnic-minority staff, to fester over a period of years.

The fact is that turning inner-city schools round is a much harder task than anyone was prepared to admit back in 1995. The market system does create sink schools which need not just inspection but significant investment and support over a long period if they are to improve. The lack of success reported by Ofsted this year at the flagship Phoenix School in Hammersmith underlines the point. Examination success at Phoenix is still lower than Hackney Downs was achieving in its darkest days.

"Failing" schools also need what Hackney Downs never got: competent and effective support from a well-run local authority and a physical environment in which staff and students can feel safe and valued. Hackney council, which is now publicly humiliated itself for its incompetence, had already spent a lot of money "turning around" another of its failing schools. In the end one is forced to the conclusion that Hackney Downs was simply a burden too far for an inefficient council, cash-starved by the Conservative government and often in political turmoil.

By the time the Education Association took over responsibility, the bill for reconstruction had grown too large for anyone to meet. That may or may not be a legitimate reason to disrupt children's education and risk blighting teachers' careers, but it is not what the term "failing school" is meant to imply. A much better case can be made for concluding that Hackney Downs, its staff and its pupils, were themselves seriously failed.

`Hackney Downs, the School that Dared to Fight', by Maureen O'Connor, Elizabeth Hales, Jeff Davies and Sally Tomlinson, is published by Cassell, price pounds 12.99