LEADING ARTICLE:Orphans of a dead school

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The Independent Online
Hackney Downs school should have been closed down several years ago. If ever there was a case of a school failing its pupils, this was it. Rapid staff turnover, high levels of truancy, a dilapidated building, falling school rolls, poor facilities, under-achievement and low GCSE scores have spoken for too long of an institution that was dying. It takes a long time to turn around a school that has fallen this far behind: better to start afresh.

Yesterday, Gillian Shephard's "hit squad" - Hackney Downs Education Association - delivered the death blow, recommending that from next term the school should be abandoned and its teachers made redundant after two decades of decline that soured a century of academic glory.

The Education Secretary's storm troopers have done their work in decisive fashion. The closure will act as a warning to nearly 100 other schools that have also failed their school inspections. They now know that they had better buck up their performance or face a similar fate.

Yesterday's decision is also (conveniently for the Government) an indictment of Hackney's Labour-controlled council which, for the past five years, has been responsible for failing to check the school's slow demise. Its history of neglect and indecision has contributed to leaving the school beyond repair.

But after all the big gestures and rhetoric, the question is: what about the pupils? Many of them will receive just five years' secondary education, yet for almost as long a cloud has hung over their education. Next term, all 206 remaining pupils will again be disrupted, when they move to Homerton House School.

They will bring with them many of the social problems that made life so difficult at Hackney Downs. A high proportion of the transferred pupils had already been expelled from other schools. One in three is defined as having special needs; two- thirds do not use English as a first language. A similar proportion qualify for free school meals as a result of the low incomes received by their parents. It is also hardly reassuring that Homerton House is run by the same council that made such a mess of Hackney Downs.

So we need more from Mrs Shephard than yesterday's scorched earth policy. Having correctly identified a bad institution and rightly closed it down, it is now up to the Education Secretary to make sure that replacement facilities are a marked improvement. By her actions, she has made herself responsible and will have to take the blame if yesterday's closure announcement does not produce greater success for pupils.

That will require resources. As Mrs Shephard's leaked Cabinet briefing document so clearly stated in September, "insufficient resources threaten the provision of education in the state school sector". The pupils of Hackney Downs know more about this than anyone else.

A better deal for these children will also require better management than existed at Hackney Downs. It is all very well sending in inspectors to diagnose ailments in schools and even dispatching hit squads with a death sentence when an institution is too far gone. But the real test of Mrs Shephard's watch will be maintaining continuous care of the many British schools that are so obviously in trouble.

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