Hackney's Learning Trust: An Example of What a Local Authority Can Do

Henry Stewart's picture
Three weeks ago Toby Young challenged Local Schools Network writers to set out the conditions that academies and free schools needed to fulfill to be acceptable. It was an interesting discussion. I argued that they should be co-ordinated by their local authority, to whom they should be accountable for the quality of their education and who should organise admissions. Toby responded that he felt this was too onerous, and that his side believed schools should be able to freely compete and act in a "selfish" manner - implying that he saw local authorities as getting in the way. To explain the very positive, indeed vital, role that local authorities can play let me give the example of Hackney (where I live) and the Learning Trust.

Ten years ago Hackney was bottom or close to bottom nationally for its GCSE results. I know many parents who left the borough when their children were 9 or 10, to avoid Hackney's secondary schools. The phrase "our education is as bad as Hackney's" was one of the worst insults that could be thrown around in local government.

All that has changed. The % of 16 year olds getting 5 GCSEs (including English & Maths) has gone from 26% in 2003 to 55% in 2010. Despite having the same levels of deprivation as before, the borough is now 67th (out of 167) in the country for raw GCSE results. Every single non-religious secondary school in Hackney is over-subscribed. Only last week a friend attended a meeting on secondary transition, which was full of Haringey parents trying to find out how to get their children into Hackney schools. Alan Wood, Chief Executive of the Learning Trust, has just been given a CBE in recognition of this success.

Note that it is the non-religious schools that are over-subscribed. In contrast all four religious schools (Jewish and Christian) have spare places. In Hackney you will not find parents suddenly starting to attend church as their children approach secondary age. Instead they will do their damndest to get into the wide range of excellent secular secondary schools. And the Learning Trust, an independent not-for-profit body that has run Hackney's education since 2002, can be very proud of its role in achieving this.

For some LSN readers the Learning Trust's focus on academies is controversial. There are now five newly built academy schools in Hackney (Mossbourne, Bridge, Petchey, City and Skinners) and, with conversions, it may be that all but one of the non-religious secondaries will become academies. But, under the last Labour government, the only way to get funding for a new school was to agree to an academy and so the Trust played the only game in town. Though the transformation is not down to the academies. Hackney first topped the mainland England table for Contextual Value Added in 2007, before any academy had got GCSE results. And even the 2010 results include only one academy (Mossbourne).

I do agree with Toby that competition can be healthy.  The phenomenal results of Mossbourne have been a spur to the rest of us. From Stoke Newington School (SNS), where I am Chair, we visit the other secondaries to see what we can learn - as they, in turn, visit SNS for the same reasons. But just as private sector competition works only within a regulated environment, so in local authorities the co-ordination of the local authority is crucial. To enable a system of 'fair banding' primary school students are tested. But they sit just one test which all schools use and the local authority administers admissions for all the secondaries.  (Though there is a little wiggle room in the appeals, which are handled by schools.) All the schools are genuinely comprehensive with a wide range of abilities and none are seen as second-class.

So what is the cause of this success and what can other borough's learn from it? I would put it down to the Learning Trust's active intervention: the high and demanding expectations, the refusal to accept excuses and the active intervention. This has meant, sometimes controversially, closing under-performing schools and moving on under-performing headteachers.

As a Chair I know that, if my school under-performs, the Trust will intervene with a mixture of challenge and support. And I also know, because it has happened to fellow Chairs, that if the school were to continue to under-perform then I would get a call explaining that the governors need to take action and change the leadership. I don't know how often this has happened but I would say at least a dozen heads in Hackney have been quietly moved on. This may sound tough but it is an education authority that will take whatever action is needed to ensure Hackney students get the quality of education they deserve.

And this is the problem with Toby Young's picture of individually competing schools, accountable only to the education minister. Will the DfE have its finger on the pulse throughout the country and be able to actively intervene in the same way? Will it spot if some schools are not doing as well as they should even if their raw scores are above average? Will it provide targeted intervention to support individual schools? Will it know when an individual school needs a change of leadership, even if the governors are reluctant to take action?

And will the picture that Toby paints (and that Gove presumably supports) of individual schools competing selfishly actually create the success we need? Or will it lead to many of them administering admissions to get the best possible entries for their own school, and then not co-operating (as Hackney schools now do, though they didn't in the early days of the academies) to take their fair share of the more challenging students, and those with greater needs? Will we see all schools succeeding, as in Hackney, or will we see some schools becoming the ones that all parents want to go to, while others enter a declining spiral as they become second choice?

In Hackney we already have the mixture of community schools and academies that may become the norm across the country. But we have a very active local education authority working to ensure the best education for all, and all schools working with it whatever their status. The result is that all the secondaries are successful and in high demand and that is what we surely want across the country. But it won't happen without that vital co-ordinating role of a strong local authority.

Perhaps it is time to learn from success, rather than diving into a new world of uncertainty and possible chaos.
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Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 17/07/2011 - 13:20

Jonathan Clifton, research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, wrote about the need to learn from successful systems. He was discussing international comparisons but he made points which are relevant when talking about co-operation between schools. He wrote:

“Diverse and fragmented school systems are no good at sharing learning between institutions. They need frameworks that all schools operate within in order to ensure that good practice is spread as widely as possible.”
Schools that are in competition with each other, especially when the prize is league table glory, are unlikely to co-operate with each other. Rather, each individual school is likely do its best to grab the high ability pupils and ensure that weaker or challenging pupils go somewhere else.


Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 17/07/2011 - 16:54

I am really glad you have written this piece Henry. After a very busy week as a chair of governors I have been ticking off all the moments at which I was very glad to have LA advice and support. I am not really sure why anyone would want to go it alone if they have a good LA behind them.

Sarah Dobbs's picture
Sun, 17/07/2011 - 17:24

Henry, after an emotionally demanding and exhausting week on the Louth and Mabelthorpe SOS campaign, thank you for helping me focus on what we stand to lose if we give up.
If I could hug you via cyber space I would.
And I will NOT give up.

Alan's picture
Sun, 17/07/2011 - 19:02

Sarah, irrespective of the proposed academies merger in Louth there’s no evidence to suggest that the Mablethorpe school will close or become a PRU. It has improved year on year since 2006 A*-C GCSEs including English and Maths despite being in the 10 per cent most deprived areas of England and the CVA being 1050.1 in 2010 (CVA is of major importance for this secondary modern school when you consider the local range of competing educational systems). The PROGRESS MEASURE for 2010 was 54% English, 65% Maths. These results provide an indication of tutor, student commitment to raising standards. No one can question this resounding success.

However, in 2009 KS4 outcomes for SEN and FSM students didn't compare well to KS2 Level 4+ results, FSM in particular . This latter point illustrates the need for a collaborative approach, for working between schools, for extended schools and for working with families, especially with parents who themselves have learning difficulties, so that they can help their children with homework.

It appears as though we have reached a tipping point nationally on academies so perhaps it is time to refocus on how we can better prepare children for school, support their learning and to make better use of resources.

Alan's picture
Mon, 18/07/2011 - 13:02

I forgot to mention that the above improvements are in comparison to 11% GCSEs >C 2006, the national average for that year being 45.6%.

Please refer to p.10 of the Mablethorpe Leader (louthleader.co.uk), July 6 2011 for an overview of local opinion on the pre and post-election SOS campaign. Talk to children and families, work WITH schools, but please, do not fight Louth's corner with yet another politically motivated SOS campaign.

Melissa Benn's picture
Sun, 17/07/2011 - 17:25

Absolutely. The kind of managed and sensible collaboration - and healthy competition - that you describe is interesting and important.
We have to find a way to develop this model further. America is fast going down the corporate charter anti union road - and it is promising to be a disaster for democratic governance and overall quality.
We have a chance to do things differently. Henry's example provides one model.

Nigel Ford's picture
Sun, 17/07/2011 - 22:18

Maybe I'm missing the point but the Learning Trust is a successful non profit making private company that is responsible for delivering all public educational services in the borough of Hackney and replaced Hackney LEA. Unlike an LA, academies come under the umbrella of the Learning Trust and that would presumably apply to a free school that was set up in Hackney.

Maybe I'm playing devils advocate, but why not replace all LA's with a Learning Trust body and make all maintained and independent state schools accountable to the Learning Trust?

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 18/07/2011 - 08:01

I am sure Henry will correct me if I am wrong but I think the key point about the Learning Trust is that it is answerable to the LA and elected councillors which is a crucial link when it comes to local accountability. Unlike the academy chains which are answerable to the Secretary of State but are not obliged to publish anything but the most superficial details of their activities.

Henry Stewart's picture
Mon, 18/07/2011 - 10:09

That's right Fiona. The Learning Trust has no greater powers than a standard LA and I don't think, in law, the academies come under their umbrella. However, over time, the local academies have come to work in co-ordination with the Learning Trust. It is, I think, voluntary but it is crucial for the mixed model to succeed.

So when you hear Gove talking about Hackney and its academies as an example of what he wants to do, remember that it succeeds because of the strong LA role - not because we have a group of schools independently and "selfishly" competing, as Toby appears to advocate.

One irony: The Learning Trust is to cease to exist in a year and education will be directly run by Hackney again. This is because, politically, the council wishes to have direct responsibility for it. (Ten years ago Hackney Council was a basket case and so it was easy in law to remove education from it. The Council has since become something of a model of good practice and, again in law, could not be argued to be unfit to run education - so it goes back to them.)

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 18/07/2011 - 10:58

This seems a sensible way of organising schools to me, and I think it's important that the Learning Trust works with academies as well as "LA" schools. The right balance between competition and collaboration with the right accountability measures in place.

Alan's picture
Mon, 18/07/2011 - 13:04

I forgot to mention that the above improvements are in comparison to 11% GCSEs >C 2006, the national average for that year being 45.6%.

Please refer to p.10 of the Mablethorpe Leader (louthleader.co.uk), July 6 2011 for an overview of local opinion on the pre and post-election SOS campaign. Talk to children and families, work WITH schools, but please, do not fight Louth's corner with another politically motivated SOS campaign.

Alasdair Smith's picture
Wed, 20/07/2011 - 10:27

The point about the role of Local Authorities is well made, but Henry's concession that 'competition' is helpful needs further examination. I think it is hard to believe that the teachers in schools in Hackney are motivated by competition. I suggest they are motivated by a deep seated commitment to improving education by improving the quality of teaching and learning. Great results have been achieved in other London boroughs - Camden & Tower Hamlets - without the competitive pressure of academies. What makes an effective local authority is a moot point. The example of authorities in Alberta, Canada offers an interesting model. But I agree that crucial to the whole process is local, democratic accountability. Academies undermine that.

Neal Skipper's picture
Wed, 20/07/2011 - 22:08

"All that has changed. The % of 16 year olds getting 5 GCSEs (including English & Maths) has gone from 26% in 2003 to 55% in 2010. Despite having the same levels of deprivation as before, the borough is now 67th (out of 167) in the country for raw GCSE results".

And according to the DfE figures, the % of Free School Meal pupils getting 5 GCSEs (including English & Maths) is ~50% - which places the borough 3rd (out of 167).

Ric Euteneuer's picture
Fri, 09/09/2011 - 14:41

To be honest, I'm never sure it's worth engaging people like Toby Young. What he effectively wants is a return to a mythical golden age of education that is neither relevant today, nor was effective when it supposedly existed in the 50s and 60s.

He does genuinely want 'selfish schools'. If you're successful - fine - if you're not, you'll go to the wall. Except that if schools do go to the wall, usually there's a need for provision in that area that has to be met. And the reasons many schools fail is not because they are badly managed or have poor expectations, but that the roll of the school to a greater or lesser extent determines achievement. So an alternative provider is not going to be any more successful with the same children than the previous provider.

Though he doesn't state it outright, nor do many free school backers, what he and his ilk want is

i) a return to partial or full selection
ii) a return to 'strict discipline', so-called 'academic rigour' and rote learning - typified by the bizarre decision to return to learning Latin
iii) strictly imposed uniform policies

the latter two which are tangential to the success of a good school, not the root cause of it.

We've revisited selection time and again - most people seem to want it for their kids, but only if their kids get into the ersatz grammar school. When was the last time you saw a parent demanding selection when their kid was destined for an ersatz secondary school ?

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