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 associate director for public service reform at IPPR.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.