Yesterday’s London section of the Sunday Politics rolled back the years to 1995, when a once illustrious secondary school in Hackney became the first in the country to be shut down for not being up to scratch. Hackney Downs School for boys had been founded in 1896 as the Grocers Company’s School and educated local lads such as Harold Pinter. But 99 years later, when the then Conservative government dispatched an “improvement squad” to sort it out, it was rendered synonymous with all that was sub-standard about education in the capital.
I remember it all well. I lived a ten-minute walk away, and still do. Reporting on the story at the time, I was secretly let in through a concealed side gate by a Hackney Downs student bearing the large, heavy key required to open it. He’d been entrusted with this task by one of the senior teachers, eager to get his and his colleagues’ side of the story heard. A whispered interview was conducted in a besieged staff room full of unwashed plates and overflowing bins while, elsewhere in the building, the government’s trouble-shooters went about their task. It was a desperate, depressing affair.
Arguments about the rights and wrongs of it can still be had, if you really want to look for them. But not many would swap the axed Hackney Downs for the very different school that sprang up on the same site in 2004, least of all the parents of children who’ve been there. I’m one of them, so I should know. Mossbourne, one of the first academies, swiftly became a phenomenon. Its intake, full of local boys and girls with special educational needs and entitlement to free school meals, left with some of the best exam results in the country. A few middle-class romantics still complain about the rigid discipline. Such objections looked pretty weak next to the hundreds of working-class children, many of them from very disadvantaged backgrounds, who’ve benefited from it.
The story of Mossbourne rising from the same ground that Hackney Downs expired on is, of course, in many ways the story of London’s schools throughout the 21st century. Various explanations for this soaring from the bottom of the national class to the top have been offered. Labour politicians like to put it down to the Blair government’s London Challenge programme. A 2014 study said the “London Effect” was due to high levels of the children of immigrants. More recent work suggests that no particular policy or factor can explain what has occurred, noting that results were starting to look up in London primary schools during the same period as the demise of Hackney Downs.
What is surely beyond dispute is that everything possible should be done to maintain London’s successes – 94% of schools rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, the best in the land – and spread them to other parts of the UK. Cutting their budgets does not qualify. Yet over 1,500 London schools, 70% of them, are being lined up to lose money as part of the government’s revised national funding formula according to analysis by London Councils, the body representing the capital’s 33 local authorities.
They say a £19m cut is likely to leave 802 Inner London and 734 Outer London schools in 19 boroughs with fewer teachers, larger class sizes and needing to make savings of £360m in total to balance their books, as various cost pressures increase. The capital’s schooling system is already facing the problems of recruiting and retaining teachers due to London’s high living costs, many of its headteachers approaching retirement and a projected need for over 100,000 additional school places by 2021/22.
The government insists that its new formula is fairer. But even if it helps other deserving areas, it is still not fair on London, which overall has the highest rate of child poverty in the country. Neither is it in the interests of the UK as a whole. The capital’s economy is vital to the nation’s wealth and needs a well-qualified local workforce to keep it strong – especially if Brexit is to lessen the flow of motivated talent from Europe. By all means let the government give more financial help to schools elsewhere. But not at the expense of London and its children.
The London section of the Sunday Politics of 5 March can be viewed here for the next 29 days. It starts 39 minutes in.