Education secretary shows ignorance when citing Hackney Downs as kick-starting reforms

Janet Downs's picture

Hackney Downs, a comprehensive boys’ school, was shut in 1995 by Tory education secretary Gillian Shepherd following an unsuccessful campaign to keep it open.  Its closure was described in a TES editorial (1 December 1995 behind paywall) as ‘not sympathetic euthanasia but premeditated murder by the Government.' 

In 2004, a brand new academy, Mossbourne, opened on the razed site of Hackney Downs.  Its head was Sir Michael Wilshaw.  It’s often said, wrongly, that Sir Michael ‘turned round’ Hackney Downs.  He couldn’t have.  Hackney Downs was closed years before Mossbourne opened.

Mossbourne is an outstanding school.   So are hundreds of other schools: both academies and non-academies.

Nevertheless, education secretary Justine Greening told the Teach First annual conference (24 October 2017 ) that academization  ‘really started…a race to the top’.  Leave aside the question about what is a race to the top (PISA’s greasy pole?  The ‘global race’ trotted out during the Coalition?).  The claim that academization is the only way to improve schools is untrue.

If this distortion weren’t bad enough, Greening demonstrates her ignorance of the ‘reforms’ she praises:

 ‘But schools like Hackney Downs and the rise of new academies that Labour actually first brought in then, of course, championed and pushed forward by us in government, like Mossbourne. Those sorts of reforms really started, I think, a race to the top...  ’

It appears Greening thinks closing a school which some believe was deliberately set up to fail is a positive action.

Greening’s speech was entitled ‘We can challenge the impossible’.  The ‘impossible’ included:

1         ‘Social mobility’ (an ill-defined notion, sounds good, but education’s role in social mobility is limited). 

2          The ability to ‘shift the dial’ (meaningless soundbite).

3         Ensuring ‘equality of opportunity’ (desirable, but introducing market forces in education makes this less likely).  

4         Ensuring ‘we tackle the opportunity deficit’ (This would better be achieved by funding schools properly).

5         Following an ‘evidence-based approach (fine, as long as it isn't just 'evidence' which is chosen or distorted to match a minister's prejudices).

Much of Greening’s speech was rhetorical waffle.  The dial was shifted three times; teachers were described as ‘amazing’ five times*, ‘fantastic’ used four times, usually to describe Teach First.  But there were nuggets of good sense.  Greening stressed the importance of Continued Professional Development (CPD) – it’s a pity she confined this to the early stages of a teacher’s career.  And she’s right to say ‘Britain’s never been a place where there has been equality of opportunity.’

But citing Hackney Downs as an example of reforms which supposedly improved English education is inexcusable.  It shows Greening isn’t on top of her brief and raises the question about who is pulling her strings. 

*Note to DfE: stop patronizing teachers by constantly calling them amazing.   Teachers don’t need to be soft-soaped – just pay them adequately, treat them professionally and ensure they’ve got the resources to do their job.


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Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 25/10/2017 - 17:35

Why was it impossible for Hackney Downs School to succeed?

This is explained in Section 4.7 of Learning Matters.

But you are in luck - here it is.

To answer the question in greater depth it is necessary to consider all the reasons why Mossbourne's much maligned predecessor, Hackney Downs school, failed to survive. Was it just a very poor school that deserved to be closed under any education system? This is what Maureen O’Connor wrote in the Independent of 16 September 1999:

The "market" in school places meant that as Hackney Downs declined it received such a high proportion of boys with special needs that it became, in its pupil composition, closer to a special school than even a secondary modern. Hackney Downs was a grotesque example of the market at its most vicious, making teaching and learning harder with each term. As HMI commented, there were children in the school who were beyond the remit of any normal classroom. The same market affected teacher recruitment and, by the end of its life, it was staffed almost entirely by young teachers in the first few years of their careers. Incompetent? The Education Association certainly thought some were, though the fact that most of the staff have moved on to successful careers elsewhere suggests that they were not so very different from staff in many other London schools. They were certainly inexperienced, as was the management in a school which had four headteachers in its last five years of life.

So how did it get like this and could its fate have been avoided? Let us consider a hypothetical history for Hackney Downs school, situated at the centre of an area of poor housing and social deprivation. Let us further assume that levels of affluence rise further away from the location of the school. It is not difficult to accept that deprived areas produce a higher proportion of problem pupils . However even the poorest areas produce some higher ability pupils and universal CAT testing can find them. The first Mossbourne Principal, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has been proved correct in his confidence that a good comprehensive school with effective teaching can overcome disadvantages that arise from relative poverty, but not without changing the Admissions Policy.

He has thus provided a great service to the principle of comprehensive education when much of the right wing media and most of the Conservative party are only too ready to blame comprehensive schools for declining standards. He was also right in insisting that it is much easier to provide educational opportunities across the ability range if the school contains the full ability range.

Let us now assume that at one time, back at the start of the league table system in the early 1990s, Hackney Downs was a popular, oversubscribed school (it does not matter for the sake of the following argument whether this is true or not). One of the reasons for such success might have been a good local record for Special Needs teaching encouraging recruitment from its immediate locality, which provided an especially rich source of such pupils.

Despite this, more affluent parents from areas of more expensive housing further away, impressed by the school’s good reputation for teaching, were still happy to seek places at the school.But if Hackney Downs’ applications had risen to exceed the places available then the LA’s oversubscription criteria would have been applied and as an LA controlled school Hackney Downs would have had no control over the effects of the LA’s General Admissions Policy whose dominant provision would have been proximity to the school.

So the parents living nearest, where there were greater proportions of children with Special Needs and lower proportions of more able children, would have had priority over more affluent parents living further away, where the incidence of Special Needs was less and a greater proportion of children were more able. Furthermore, the more over-subscribed Hackney Downs might have become, the more that less-able, more local children would have filled the school, denying places to the less problematic children of more affluent parents that lived further away. It would not have taken long within the league table culture for this process to have destroyed any lingering good reputation the school may have had and for its inevitable slide down the league tables to destroy its popularity with parents.

This does not have to have been the actual history of Hackney Downs to understand that whatever policies the school had adopted it could not have avoided the fate described in the Independent article. League tables make it inevitable that LA schools geographically located at the centre of areas of high social deprivation with proximity based admission policies would have eventually failed to meet ‘floor targets’, and under the ‘zero tolerance of failure’ policy of New Labour, become candidates for closure and replacement by new banded Academies that could avoid admitting the problem pupils.

Part 4 in my book deals in detail with how it was CATs driven 'fair banding', not open to Hackney Downs School, that enabled Mossbourne Academy to succeed on the Hackney Downs site

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