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