Tales from an inner city school governor

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Book Review - Hackney Downs

Book review - Hackney Downs - The School That Dared to Fight (1999).

This is the tale of the last few years in the life of Hackney Downs, a boys' secondary school in one of the most deprived areas of the UK.

It's quite a depressing read, to find how at every turn the school seemed to be up against the odds, but some of the quotes (for example, letters from supportive parents) are quite heartwarming and remind the reader why the whole battle had to be fought, why the stakeholders just could not give up and die. After all, when the school finally closed it was actually improving, with the potential for a promising future.

There are some aspects which strike a chord with my own school's situation - the majority of children speaking English as a second language, and a falling role leading to accepting a high number of children who had been excluded from elsewhere (both leading to a far higher than average proportion of pupils with special needs), as well as several Heads over a relatively short time.

Other issues which affected Hackney Downs are outside of my experience, and are things I hope would never happen to my school - a devisive "Black parents and staff" group causing problems, and the LEA never stumping up for promised essential building works. Most crucially, year 7 intake was suspended for a year, ostensively to undertake building work so that the school could go co-ed, but by the time it happened the proposal to admit girls had been thrown out. The school never recovered from the crippling loss of year 7, and didn't get the financial compensation the LEA had promised. Mysterious HMI visits and being taken over by an Education Association seemed to seal Hackney Downs's fate.

Ironically, when the school eventually closed, the property could not be sold off as it was held in covenant by the LEA for use as an educational facility - making a mockery of the financial argument for its closure.

The book is co-authored by Betty Hales, who was Acting Head at the end of the school's life, but the information is presented in a factual way, and uses quotes from HMI reports, parents and exam results in order to deliver the story, so there is no feeling of bias.

From a Governor's point of view, it's an essential read. It made me aware of the things that can happen; the way that parent support must be harnessed, the fact that the LEA can work against a school as well as with it, the way that the media can work when it is hunting for a story. It has made me feel I should take more of an interest in my school - we should be pro-active, rather than waiting to see how things unfold. We should be aware of our school's issues and development, and ensure that where the LEA promises action, we hold them to it.

As it is more of a study than a story, it's quite hard to get into (I read this book before becoming a governor, and again recently, and it made much more sense this time around) but well worth the effort, as both a cautionary and heartwarming tale.


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