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Gracious living, fine restaurants, and a lousy education

ISLINGTON MAY have some of the most desirable housing and restaurants in London but its schools are a source of endless angst to middle-class parents. The dilemma is particularly acute for Labour politicians.

So appalling is the schools' reputation that the Prime Minister sent his children half-way across London to be educated, and nearly half of Islington parents have followed suit.

They include the Education minister Margaret Hodge, who was Islington's council leader in the days when the town hall displayed a bust of Lenin and a red flag flew overhead, and Rupert Perry, who chairs the council's education committee. Last week Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour MP for Islington North and his wife said that their marriage had foundered over whether to send their son to one of the borough's schools.

With a pass rate of just 25 per cent in five or more GCSEs in 1997, few can blame them. Even neighbouring Camden, another socially mixed area, has a more respectable pass rate of 40 per cent. Islington teachers also suffer from an image of Left-wing militancy.

How can such a desirable area have such dreadful schools? The answer is that Islington, once you subtract a few wealthy pockets, is not well- off; it is, in fact, the 10th poorest area in the country.

The borough stretches far beyond the New Labour haunts of Upper Street, across to Holloway, up to Archway, taking in great sprawls of public housing including the Packington and Marquis Estates, notorious for their crime, vandalism and social problems.

Just 42 per cent of secondary pupils in Islington are white, and more than a third of all children do not speak English as a first language. The proportion of secondary pupils on free school meals - the main indicator of deprivation - is 59 per cent, compared with a national average of 18 per cent.

As yesterday's Ofsted report points out: "Some of the most expensive homes in London are to be found only a short distance away from areas with severe social problems, including drug abuse, high crime rates and vandalism."

In the Eighties, Islington Council was a notorious Socialist stronghold, home to one of the so-called "loony Left" councils excoriated by the tabloid press. It was here, so the tale goes, that a five-year-old child was reprimanded by nursery school teachers for humming the politically incorrect Baa-Baa Black Sheep.

Tony Blair's elevation to Labour leader gave a different gloss to Islington's image. Overnight it became synonymous with everything that New Labour wished to stand for: chic, modern, metropolitan. The leadership deal itself - in which Gordon Brown agreed not to run for the top post, leaving the way open for Mr Blair - was hammered out in Granita, an Islington restaurant that is now a local landmark.

Centrally located with good transport links to the City, Islington bristles with bars, restaurants and antique shops that draw large crowds from outside the area at weekends. Upper Street, the main thoroughfare, is one of the hippest spots in London.

Islington also has some of the city's choicest real estate, offering - for those who can afford it - gracious living in leafy squares of Georgian terraces. In Barnsbury, where the Blairs lived until they moved to Downing Street, and Canonbury, houses with a pounds 500,000 price tag are not uncommon.

When Islington took over responsibility for schools from the Inner London Education Authority in 1990, Ms Hodge declared that education in the borough would be "in a class of its own". As yesterday's report shows, her prediction has proved correct, although not in the way she expected.

Islington has an unemployment rate of nearly 12 per cent compared with an inner London average of 9.5 per cent and a national average of 4.6.