Leading Article: Last chance for Hackney Downs

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Hackney Downs school should have been closed earlier this month by the local council if it had had the best interests of pupils at heart. This was a famous old London grammar school that once served an affluent middle class and includes the actors Steven Berkoff and Michael Caine and the playwright Harold Pinter among its alumni. But it has been in what looks like terminal decline for a long time.

It has room for 1,000 students, but only 200 on its roll. Since 1990 there have been four changes of head teacher. The decaying buildings are in need of repair. One in three pupils is defined as having special needs, two-thirds do not use English as their first language, and - a sign of low incomes - a similar proportion qualify for free school meals. GCSE results are poor, truancy rates are high and discipline has been appalling: the school has a reputation for gangs. In short, Hackney Downs is a declining rump of a school, populated with largely disaffected, disadvantaged children from the bottom of the heap. It has probably slipped too far to be rescued.

Hackney's Labour council rightly decided to close it, only to compound pupils' problems by reversing its own decision just a few weeks before the end of the summer term. Given this chaotic situation, Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, was right to step in yesterday and appoint a high-powered team to take over the running of the school. For legal reasons she could not close it immediately so she had no choice but to give the school a chance to redeem itself.

A tough new headteacher was appointed in March 1994. According to the inspectors there are early signs of improvement, particularly in discipline. The head must now be given the resources to do a difficult job properly, although quite frankly the price-tag for bailing out the school is probably unacceptably high.

This is the first occasion that ministers have sent in a special team, known as an education association, to run a school. Such a drastic measure should in general be adopted only as a last resort. But it is important for pupils and parents that schools should not be allowed to slide inexorably downwards, with the prospects of hundreds of children damaged due to a failure to intervene effectively.

However, the most pressing question that remains is: how could this school have been left to stagger on for so long? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that these were children whose parents have little clout and whom the local authority was, therefore, able to ignore. It is all very well having highly skilled education ambulances sent off at great speed to save sick schools. But it would be far better to catch those that are ailing much earlier and administer a less radical cure.