'Hit squad' to run troubled school

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The Independent Online
A high-powered government "hit squad'', the first of its kind, is to be drafted in to run Hackney Downs School, a troubled boys' comprehensive in east London.

The governing body is to be sacked and a team of experts from industry and education will have 10 weeks in which to make a recommendation to Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, on the future of the school.

Robin Squire, Schools Minister, said yesterday: "All concerned now need to know quickly whether the school is to close or whether it can be rapidly improved at reasonable cost." The Hackney Downs Education Association takes control of the school from Hackney local education authority on 1 September. It will be headed by Richard Painter, an official of ADT, the car auctions and security systems company, and a supporter of the Tory Party.

The school, once one of London's best, whose old boys include Harold Pinter, Michael Caine and Steven Berkoff, was due to close this month after years of decline which led to a damning report last August from the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) which was critical of poor GCSE results, under-achievement, truancy levels and poor attitudes to work.

Buildings are run-down and numbers are down to around 200 in a school which could take 1,000 pupils. Many local families are transient immigrants. Pupils are predominantly Turkish, Kurdish and Afro-Caribbean, with some Asian and white children.

There has been a vigorous campaign by parents, pupils and other local people to keep the school open. Hackney council withdrew the closure notices at the end of last month, three weeks before it was due to close, in the teeth of professional advice from its own officers. It did so because of a change in control in May among the local Labour group. The local authority had originally moved to close the school because it considered the Hackney Downs action plan, prepared by staff, financially unviable.

A new acting head was appointed in March last year and inspectors are reporting signs of improvements.

Yesterday Dr Tony Burgess, a Reader at the Institute of Education at London University, who has been chair of the school's governors since last November, said there had been management failures in the past but real improvements since the current head, Betty Hales, took over. He said: "This is not a failing school. It's an improving school. I am pleased that notice has finally been taken of the commitment of the teachers."

Hackney council expressed its "extreme disappointment'' with the decision to send in the Education Association. But David Phillips, chair of education and leisure services, said the authority would work with the association and the school "in the interests of the children".

'Hit squad' steps in, page 4