Pride of community destroyed by inner-city tensions

Institution that thrived on social change failed challenge of new ethnic diversity
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The Independent Online

It was the pride of a community, the school 46 architects vied to build, the educational paragon that spawned playwrights, actors and politicians.

Hackney Downs - or The Grocers as it was then, after the Worshipful Company of Grocers which founded it in 1876 - was to have been a centre of educational excellence.

It was built in Hackney, a new and affluent part of the growing corridor into London served by a swift railway line and used by a growing commuter class. The wealthy guild members wanted their sons to receive a good education and so the school was born, Gothic in appearance, public school in style. By the turn of the century it was regarded as one of the finest in London. It remained so for almost a century. Its success was in adapting to social change but it can be said that its downfall, too, came from changes in society - the changes that brought unemployment, racial tensions and mass poverty.

Pupils included Harold Pinter, the playwright, Lords Goodman and Peston, Steven Berkoff, the writer and director, and Michael Caine, the actor.

Its fortunes mirrored those of its inner-city surroundings, where mass immigration, urban decay, unemployment and the fragmentation of family life have contributed to a debilitating apathy.

Initially, its diversity was its strength. The eclectic nature of its vibrant intake became apparent in the first two decades of the century when Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe swelled classrooms.

Control of The Grocers had been taken by the London County Council in 1906 and by 1944 it was called Hackney Downs. In 1963, a fire destroyed its central Victorian building. This was replaced, creating a new character as its intake shifted again with the growth of the area's Afro-Caribbean community. In 1966, it went comprehensive.

During those years, the school and rigid traditions were jettisoned and it became a haven for progressive ideas.

The racial mix that was eventually to put such a strain on pupils and teachers continued unabated, to the extent that 27 languages were spoken by the time the hit squad moved in. During the 1980s, the Afro-Caribbean predominance was replaced by Bangladeshi, Turkish and Asian influences. This at a time when unemployment continued to grow and children were facing less stability and more disruption at home as divorce rates continued to rise.

In the mid-1980s unrest erupted among the staff and a series of national teachers' strikes hit the school. It was later closed for a year following a walkout by staff concerned over asbestos removal.

In 1993, following a bout of gang warfare between Hackney Downs boys and pupils from other schools, the school applied to take in girls to make the atmosphere less aggressive. It kept its first-year rolls free in anticipation of a positive reply, so when it was turned down by the Department for Education, it was left with an empty first year.

With staff feeling abandoned by the local education authority, the head and deputy head of the school's maths department resigned over the lack of facilities. Teachers complained that pupils were sitting in classrooms with leaky roofs. At the same time, Hackney Black Parents and Teachers' Group leafleted parents, advising them to remove their children from the school. Sixty boys were removed and the end was in sight.

In May 1994, inspectors from Ofsted, the new schools inspectorate, decided Hackney Downs was at risk of failing its pupils and in need of special help. In October 1994, with just 200 boys in a school built for 1,000, Hackney Council decided to close it.

That decision was overturned last June but a month later the hit squad moved in and predictions by education specialists that the school would be closed were eventually proved right.