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New start for pupils sold short by council politics

Michael Barber, a member of the team sent in to Hackney Downs, on how events will affect a whole service
The Government's decision yesterday to appoint the first Education Association to take over a failing school has implications not only for Hackney Downs school in east London but for the rest of Hackney and the education service as a whole.

In relation to the school itself the central issue must be the quality of education provided for the young people there. For many years they have been short-changed. After various worthy but unsuccessful attempts to revive the school the Hackney education authority decided in March to close it. In May one group of Labour councillors ousted another and then only three weeks before the school was due to close, they decided to keep it open after all.

In doing so they ignored the strongly worded advice of the council's chief education officer, Gus John, and left a school in limbo. The pupil roll call was below 250, there was no clarity about what action was needed to save the school and there were major tensions between councillors and education officers.

In the past Hackney has worked well in turning round failing schools such as Hackney Free and Parochial, but that was because the previous council leadership was working in harmony with the education officials and taking their advice. This state of affairs no longer exists.

The new Education Association will need to decide whether the interests of the pupils are now served best by finding them places in other local schools, a number of which are successful, or by redeveloping Hackney Downs itself.

The councillors' change of mind has also impacted on other local schools. One, Homerton House, had prepared to receive pupils from Hackney Downs when it closed. Meanwhile, all the schools in Hackney will suffer in budget terms from the decision to keep open a school which, because it has very few pupils, is very expensive to run. The Education Association will need to consider the interests of children across Hackney as well as at Hackney Downs.

Beyond Hackney the first Education Association in the country has implications for the education service as a whole. The preferred government option will surely be to continue to work with local education authorities in turning round failing schools. The evidence suggests that in many of the 80 schools so far found to be failing this is working. In others the LEAs have taken the tough but sensible decision to go for closure. Still others are considering what David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, has called "a fresh start". The most notable of these is the Phoenix School in Hammersmith and Fulham, west London, where a fresh start is already working.

Where decisive action is being taken at local level the government will be unlikely to want to establish an Education Association. It is a high risk venture, which, if it fails, leaves ministers with no hiding place.

But if in a handful of cases LEAs vacillate or prioritise local political manoeuvring above a concern for educational standards, the Government, whether Conservative or Labour, can be expected to intervene.

High educational standards are now, rightly, a top political priority. The vast majority of councillors recognise this and in some cases are leading the crusade for improvement. The message of this Education Association to other councillors is that they should join the crusade.

Michael Barber is Professor of Education at Keele University and a member of the newly appointed Educastion Association.