Hackney's education success story

How Labour improved inner city schools.

Amid the outcry over the first ever fall in the numbers getting a C or above at GCSE, it is easy to forget the extraordinary transformation that has taken place in schools in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country over the last decade. 

If you want to see a genuine revolution in school improvement - look at Hackney, where I am a local Councillor. In the 1990s the borough's schools were a byword for educational failure: in 1990 only 14% of the borough's students got 5 or more GCSE grades A to C and in primary schools 42% of lessons observed were deemed unsatisfactory. In 1994 Hackney Downs school failed its Ofsted inspection, was labelled 'the worst school in he country' and was eventually closed in the teeth of fierce local opposition. During that period the council was bereft of coherent political leadership, became virtually bankrupt and saw basic services in a state of collapse. In 1997 the new Labour government asked Ofsted to inspect Hackney's LEA, which concluded that it was failing in its provision of basic services.

Fast forward to yesterday's GCSE results: whereas in 2002 just 31% of Hackney's students achieved 5 A*-C grades including English and Maths, yesterday a remarkable 60.5% did so - the borough's best ever results and up 3.5% compared with last year. At Mossbourne Academy which replaced the old Hackney Downs school an extraordinary 89% achieved 5 A*-Cs including English and Maths.

All of Hackney's secondary schools have achieved remarkable results: at Bridge Academy 58% got 5 A*-C grades including English and Maths, at Cardinal Pole 66%, at Haggerston School 50%, at Our Lady’s 60%, at Stoke Newington School 60%, at Petchey Academy 60%, at the Urswick School 48% and at Yesoday Hatorah Secondary School 73%.

Whereas in the past parents were rushing to get their kids out of Hackney's schools, today they are queueing to get them in: 82% of pupils who transfer from Hackney's primary schools in Year 6 choose to stay in the borough for their secondary education.

What explains this revolution? First there was the school improvement programme enabled by the last Labour government - Hackney has opened 5 new Academies, which brought new leadership, focus and energy into the borough's secondary schools. But all of Hackney's schools have improved over this period, benefiting from effective leadership, investment in school buildings and staff and a partnership approach across the borough led by the Learning Trust.

Second there was investment in early years provision: there are now 21 children's centres providing coordinated early years education, development and care. The percentage of children reaching a good level of development at the Foundation Stage has risen from 33% in 2006 to 54% in 2011, halving the gap with the rest of the country.

Third, there has been strong and collaborative leadership: Hackney education functions were transferred in 2002 to the not for profit Learning Trust led consistently over ten years by Alan Wood. The Learning Trust had control over all education services in the borough and has been able to coordinate activity successfully through partnerships with schools, governors and stakeholders. It has created its own ethos and has emphasised the development of staff, building the state of the art Tomlinson Centre to provide staff with continuous professional development.  The Learning Trust has been supported by the strong leadership of Hackney's directly elected Mayor Jules Pipe, who has transformed the council from the chaos of the 1990s into one of the most improved local authorities in the country. The council has been ambitious for local schools, pragmatic in its dealings with government and has continuously pushed for further improvement.

Hackney's transformation in just ten years should kill stone dead the claim that there is little that can be done in schools to compensate young people for the wider challenges they face from living in a relatively disadvantaged area. Focused leadership, innovation and investment have radically improved the life chances of young people in what remains one of the poorest parts of the country.

Rick Muir is Associate Director at IPPR

Crowds in Hackney cheer as the Olympic flame passes. (Getty Images.)

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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