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

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.