Hackney Downs: why it had to fail

Maurice Peston's old school is in trouble. But wider social changes are to blame, he argues
I WAS a pupil at Hackney Downs school in east London from 1945 to 1949. It was then a boys' grammar school and we got there by passing the scholarship, which was later called the 11-plus. I remember doing the tests in Bradford where I had been evacuated during the war. I cannot remember any preparation nor do I recall any pressure, only a letter saying that I had passed and offering a list of schools I might attend. My mother chose Hackney Downs because it was near where we expected to live when the war was over.

My fellow pupils included Harold Pinter (I can remember his father's pride at the leading roles he played in Macbeth and in Romeo and Juliet); Barry Supple, economic historian and later Master of St Catherine's College, Oxford; Abraham Guz, a head boy, who went on to a distinguished professorial career at Charing Cross Hospital; and John Bloom, who was later to make a fortune selling washing machines and then lose it.

Now, Hackney Downs has fallen into sad decline. It is described as a failing inner-city comprehensive, so unpopular with parents that pupil numbers are down to fewer than 250. Last week, Robin Squire, the junior education minister, announced that he was relieving the local council of control and sending in a five-man "education association" (or "hit- squad", as the newspapers call it) to run the school. It is the first school to be the target of these new ministerial powers.

What has gone wrong? Hackney is a poor area - 80 per cent of the boys now at the school are from ethnic minorities - but it was also poor in the 1940s. Our fathers typically worked in the garment trade. We lived in small terraced houses or flats and had our weekly baths at Hackney Baths. We did our homework in rooms in which the radio was always on, with family life continuing around us. We relied on Hackney and Stoke Newington libraries for books and for quiet reading. Our parents were ambitious for us, especially if we wanted to be doctors or accountants, and I suppose that, in our great will to succeed, we could be described as extreme Thatcherites. Yet most of our parents were Labour supporters and so were most of us.

There was another side to it, however. This was a highly selective world, in sporting as well as academic life. When I got to the school, I was placed in the A stream. I do not believe I ever knew any boys at all in the B and C streams. Still less did I know anybody who went to a secondary modern school.

This was the crux of the case for comprehensive education. In my mind, three propositions underpinned it. First, as R H Tawney put it, if a school was not good enough for my child, it was not good enough for anybody's child. Second, educational success, however it was evaluated, depended on family background, and social and economic circumstances, as well as on the individual. Third, and most important of all, the 11-plus was inefficient, socially harmful and morally wrong.

The research evidence was overwhelming. Selection erroneously told many bright and interested young people that they could not succeed in academic matters. It was brutal in its insistence that those who had an arts bent but lacked any mathematical ability (or vice versa) were unsuited for grammar schools. It took virtually no account of separate speeds of individual development. Worse still was the divisiveness, which so many people still hanker after, based on the bright being separated for their secondary education from the majority.

As an adviser to Labour education ministers such as Tony Crosland and Reg Prentice in the 1960s and 1970s, I strongly supported the move to comprehensive education. I am still fully committed to such beliefs. If the results have proved disappointing for schools such as Hackney Downs that is the result of wider social changes. In the 1960s, the movement to greater fairness and equality in schools seemed to go naturally with a movement to greater fairness and equality in society. We were instinctively optimistic about the solution of problems, just as people today are instinctively pessimistic. We lived in a society which approached full employment and where everybody's standard of living was rising. Nobody had heard of the "underclass".

We were not starry-eyed. We were aware of the growing problems of the inner-cities, for example. Questions about black immigration were being asked, if not answered, except by the racists who simply wanted it stopped. But I for one did not predict the enormous increase in unemployment nor the scale of destruction of hope that it engendered.

We live now in a more socially divided society than when comprehensives were founded; hope and expectation are prerequisites for success at school and, in many areas, these have been lost. What is not fully appreciated is how often, in the most adverse circumstances, teachers in comprehensives have overcome those difficulties. They deserve recognition, not carping criticism from supposed colleagues in selective and fee-paying schools. They also deserve fairer access to resources, instead of having to watch the greed of opted-out schools that benefit from preferential government funding.

Equally, local authorities in inner-city areas deserve more understanding. No doubt mistakes have been made at Hackney Downs. Democracy at any level is rather imperfect and, as this government demonstrates every day, is compatible with administrative incompetence. The role of central government should be to help and reinforce the local authority, not to undermine it by sending in outsiders to tell it what to do. What Hackney most needs is a return to full employment. But neither the council nor the teachers at Hackney Downs can do much about that.

The writer is Emeritus Professor of Economics, Queen Mary College, London, and Labour's industry spokesman in the House of Lords.