Mystery backer donates £2m to reopen school

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The Independent Online

A state school once known as the "Eton of the East End" is likely to reopen as a flagship academy for inner-city children with the help of a mystery £2m donation.

Hackney Downs in east London – a grammar school for most of its 119-year history – was a jewel in the state education system with a glittering array of former pupils including the actor Sir Michael Caine and the playwrights Steven Berkoff and Harold Pinter. In 1995, though, it became the first state school to be closed for failing its pupils. A three-month investigation by a "hit squad" of education experts concluded it was beyond salvation. Inspectors found that one in five of its pupils was playing truant at any one time – one of the highest rates in the country.

Now the school stands on the brink of being reopened as one of the Government's city academies – schools sponsored by industry but also backed with government finance.

An unidentified businessman, who is in contact with a group of parents campaigning for a new school on the Hackney Downs site, has come forward with the donation. Russell Henderson, a former pupil at Hackney Downs who is now a spokesman for the parents' group, said: "We felt there was a very great need for a mixed non-denominational and non-selective secondary school in the borough."

He said figures had shown that Hackney was a "net exporter" of children of secondary school age, with many pupils travelling to other boroughs.

The Hackney Downs site has remained unused since the school closed but parents discovered a covenant for the school insisting that the site could be used only for secondary school purposes. If the city academy plan is approved, it would be the first of the new government academies to be prompted by a parents' action group. Tony Blair has made clear he would like to see parental support for the schools.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "We welcome the interest in establishing a city academy on the Hackney site – particularly the parents' involvement. Officials have been discussing the options with potential sponsors and Hackney local education authority. We hope to make progress soon."

If the plan is approved, Hackney Downs will be the Government's 13th city academy and will open in September 2004. The schools are all funded by the Government but run independently of the local education authority.