Hackney Downs: why it had to fail

Maurice Peston's old school is in trouble. But wider social changes are to blame, he argues

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Designer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity for someone wi...

Recruitment Genius: Building Manager / Head Porter

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Medical Copywriter / Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an awa...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Clerk / Debriefer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading temperature contro...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: the Labour leadership election hasn’t yet got to grips with why the party lost

John Rentoul
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific