Hackney's education story

  • By Mayor Jules Pipe

The transformation of education in London is one of the greatest successes of public policy of the last decade, and nowhere has that success been more remarkable than in Hackney, where the education offer has gone from being probably the worst to becoming one of the best, not just in London, but in the UK.

In 2002, Hackney’s Key Stage 2 results were the worst in the country, and less than a third of our students were achieving five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C. Last year, 2014, that figure was above the national average at 61 per cent, with some schools achieving as high as 91 per cent.

It is a mark of the endemic culture of low expectation that existed in the borough that in 2002, not one of Hackney’s maintained secondary schools had a sixth form. Now they all do. Whereas once, more than half of our pupils leaving primary schools left the borough for their secondary education, now, despite many additional places having been created, our secondary schools are over-subscribed with more than 80 per cent of children preferring to stay within the Hackney state sector.

In some ways, the story of education in Hackney is just one part of the borough’s overall transformation. After all, since the late 1990s when Hackney Council was on the brink of financial collapse, every single aspect of public service in this borough has undergone the same radical overhaul and improvement. It is unlikely that the transformation of education would have been so complete had the rest of the borough’s services not kept pace. It would be hard to operate truly excellent schools in an environment of failure.

However, it is probably true to say that of all the improvements Hackney has seen, the success of our schools is the most fundamentally important, and has been the biggest driver of social change in the borough.

The local authority in Hackney, while responsible for many of the problems suffered by Hackney schools in the past, has played a vital role in the turnaround of education in the borough, and continues to lead a culture of excellence and improvement. In the late 1990s, however, the council was well into its six-year period of no-overall control, which was unique in local government history in having no political leadership appointed throughout that time. The whole council was in crisis and the fact that Hackney schools were failing badly was just one symptom of a malaise that affected every part of local services. The newly elected Labour government was keen to show its teeth when it came to failing councils, and in 1997, the then Education Secretary David Blunkett sent in inspectors who concluded that the council Insights on improving schools was failing to meet its responsibilities with regard to education, followed by a ‘hit squad’ charged with raising standards. By 1999, when an Audit Commission report found that Hackney had presided over the largest fall in GCSE results in the country, the government intervened, putting Hackney’s LEA into special measures, and taking direct control of education services away from the council.

At the time, some complained that the Secretary of State should be focusing his attention directly on the schools rather than the LEA. David Willetts, then Shadow Education Secretary said: “It’s no good the government stomping around making these gestures… the problems in Hackney are in the schools.”

Willetts was not entirely wrong. Many of the problems were in the schools, but it’s also true to say that Hackney’s failing LEA had a huge part to play in the decline of education in the borough. As well as poor management of the education estate, which had led to many schools falling into serious disrepair, the LEA displayed what can most kindly be characterised as a lack of leadership and a culture of low expectations. Ofsted reports at the time identified political interference and uncertainty over budgets as contributing factors to failing schools. The former Chief Inspector of Schools Chris Woodhead went further, urging the government to “rescue the education of some of Britain’s most deprived children from the malign influence of Hackney Council”.

Blunkett’s intervention led to the creation of the Learning Trust, a bespoke not-for-profit company set up to take on the functions of Hackney’s failing LEA and report directly to the Secretary of State for Education. Other boroughs were seeing similar outsourcing arrangements being put in place, involving private companies such as Serco and CEA. The not-for-profit nature of the Learning Trust meant that it was able to establish itself without contending with the same accusations of privatisation, and immediately establish a strong relationship with heads, governors and teaching unions. Its chief executive was Alan Wood, a widely respected director of education who, since 2006, has also been Hackney’s corporate director of Children and Young People’s Services.

The composition of the Learning Trust’s board was also a key element in this success. Chaired by Sir Mike Tomlinson, a highly respected former Ofsted chief, and involving heads, governors, and the local authority, the Learning Trust was seen to have a legitimacy of governance which would have been hard to achieve with a profit-making company. The focus of the newly created trust was on school improvement and the creation of a new culture of achievement. There was an emphasis on pride, on supporting pupils and on making every child feel they were entitled to succeed.

The Learning Trust ran campaigns to motivate and support students at exam times with the slogan “Hackney’s with you all the way”. For the first time, Hackney students were being encouraged to feel proud of who they were and where they were from, and to feel that they could succeed.

Despite the autonomy given to the Learning Trust, as the council itself became increasingly more functional, and then high-performing, a strong partnership relationship was forged between the two organisations. The year in which the Learning Trust was created was also the year in which I was elected as Mayor, and education was a priority for my administration from day one. In some ways, having the day-to-day running of schools removed from the picture proved to be an advantage for those of us who were focused on fixing all the borough’s other failing services, as it was one less big problem for the organisation to deal with on its own.

Certainly the Learning Trust’s focused singularity of purpose worked in its favour. However, as Mayor I knew that we would never make an impact on Hackney’s deep-rooted social problems and inequalities without transforming the schools, and I always felt that this was in part my responsibility, even if the day to day management was not under the council’s control.

What remained the council’s responsibility, and where we could make a big impact, was the fabric of the education estate, the bricks and mortar of Hackney schools.

While the Learning Trust focused on school standards, the council undertook a comprehensive programme of capital investment across the primary and secondary estates. Over 10 years we entirely renewed the infrastructure of Hackney’s schools. As early, and highly efficient, adopters of the Building Schools for the Future programme, we achieved complete renewal of all our maintained secondaries and special schools – the success of our initial schemes at the point when the coalition government decided to scrap BSF nationally in 2010 resulted in Hackney being one of the few authorities allowed to complete its programme.

Our education estate is now one of which we can be very proud, with new spaces to learn and play alongside first-class facilities to inspire students and teachers alike. Through our stewardship of BSF we have seen six schools completely renewed, and four new schools built from scratch. In addition, we commissioned 19 new children’s centres to the highest design standards, and five new youth centres. We have renewed the fabric of almost every educational building in the borough to an exceptionally high standard, and this has undoubtedly had a big impact on the morale and performance of teachers and
students, as well as the desirability of our schools to parents.

Being early adopters certainly worked to our advantage with the BSF programme, and the same can be said of our approach to Academies.

Two existing secondary schools were deemed unsalvageable and needed to be replaced entirely – no amount of “re-badging” or “fresh starting” would have succeeded. The council acted decisively in their closure, contrasting sharply with the infamous death throes of Hackney Downs in 1996 where the council’s lack of leadership prompted the then Secretary of State to intervene. The desperate need to create new, high quality school places meant we were one of the first councils in the UK to adopt the Labour government’s Academies programme. Many in the Labour Party had, and still have, deep reservations about Academies – in particular, their independence from LEAs, the element of private sponsorship the original schools required, and the potential influence of sponsors. In some parts of the country, these concerns proved to be not without foundation, especially where sponsors had their own religious or ideological agenda. In Hackney, however, we avoided these problems by being very clear from the outset about what we wanted from our new schools.

Hackney is one of those places that seems to collectively hold a certain set of values. Our residents come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and increasingly disparate economic circumstances, but a belief in diversity, tolerance and community defines the place today as much as it ever did. Back in 2003, when we consulted residents about the kind of new schools they wanted to see in Hackney, the response came back with a clear majority in favour of mixed-sex, non-denominational, non-selective schools. What Hackney parents wanted, in the main, were schools that reflected a belief in high-quality, locally provided comprehensive education.

That is what we were determined to give them, and those were the conditions we put upon the donation of local authority land to the Academies programme, effectively delivered through the council maintaining a right of veto in the selection of sponsors.

When we set up the Hackney Academies programme, it was clear what was needed in the borough, and that was brand new schools. Not re-branded failing schools, but new schools, built to the highest architectural and design standards; flagship schools of which the whole community could be proud. And that is what we achieved. The first wave of academy schools in Hackney, which included the now nationally renowned Mossbourne Academy, designed by Richard Rogers, set a standard for new schools across the country.

Our Academy schools opened with just one year group, building up to full capacity over seven years, which allowed them to embed excellence from day one. All were mixed, non-denominational, and none exercised their right to select 10 per cent of their intake. All had to commit to being “part of the family of Hackney schools” which meant Academy chains were rejected (as have their attempts at takeovers since), along with those charities and private schools that wanted to parachute in elite “ivory  towers” in order to select “a lucky few”.

Hackney’s Academies were, and still are, a magnet for ministerial visits, with successive waves of national politicians keen to bask in the reflected glories of their stellar results. Tony Blair and most of the Cabinet once arrived at Mossbourne to launch a document on the renewal of public services. At that event, Blair took me aside and suggested that I should “speak to Gordon about what the Academies programme had done for the borough”. Moments later, I was propelled across the room by the Prime Minister to extol their benefits to his Chancellor. The need for such lobbying is partially explained by the fact that Brown had no immediate constituency experience of Academies, as of course the programme did not operate within the devolved Scottish education system. It was also symptomatic, however, of the scepticism towards Academies within some parts of the Labour Party that Blair felt that his potential future successor should need such encouragement.

I have never been a flag-waver for the Academies programme in itself, as “one-size-fits-all” approaches are a mistaken approach of national governments, and too much of the debate revolves falsely around “autonomy” being the key ingredient for success. However, when it came to building Hackney the schools it needed and deserved I was, and remain, a pragmatist. At that stage Hackney desperately needed new schools, and the academies programme was the only show in town. Those who wished to wait for a government that freely funded local authorities to build maintained schools are still waiting. Meanwhile we have seven new Academy schools, alongside those built and refurbished under BSF.

It made absolute sense for us to get involved at an early stage and the results from some of those schools have been phenomenal. But it was not their Academy status that made the difference in the case of schools like Mossbourne. After all, since the introduction of LMS, local authorities don’t run any schools directly. Rather, there is a strong argument that a brand new, state-of-the-art school with the kind of inspirational leadership, ethos and discipline provided by Sir Michael Wilshaw as its Principal would have succeeded whether or not it was an Academy. I am equally proud of what many of our maintained schools have achieved over the past 10 years, and I have always been determined to ensure that we did not end up with a two-tier secondary system in Hackney, where the academies flourished at the expense of the rest – and the BSF programme was vital to achieving that.

What those early Academies did though, was to raise the bar for schools in Hackney and show that is it is absolutely possible to achieve excellence in an inner-city school with a comprehensive intake and a challenging catchment area. This is what Tony Blair believed, supported by his then policy adviser Andrew Adonis, when they ignored the views of departmental officials who counselled against implementing the Academies programme in Hackney on the basis that “the borough was a basket case and always would be”.

In 2012, after a solid decade of improving results and attainment, the Learning Trust’s contract ended and any requirement on the council to renew or re-tender the service had long since been lifted by the then Secretary of State, Ed Balls. In taking the service back in-house, we created the Hackney Learning Trust, a new department of the council which would maintain the flexibility and much of the culture of the outsourced organisation, whilst becoming part of the wider local authority.

The new department would maintain the Learning Trust brand, which by now was very well known and respected across the education world, to allow it to trade both inside and outside the borough. It had become clear to us that, at a time when education funding has been stripped away from local authorities and devolved to schools, if we wanted to keep providing a robust schools improvement service, to effectively support the Hackney family of schools and to continue to discharge our responsibilities to the young people of this borough, we had to ensure that our services were something that schools wanted to buy.

The Hackney Learning Trust is now selling services to dozens of boroughs and counties and hundreds of schools across the country. Every single state school in Hackney, including academies and free schools currently chooses to buy services from the Hackney Learning Trust, which not only allows us to generate income – in  2013/14 around £6 million – but also to maintain the concept of a connected and mutually supportive local family of schools. The new Hackney Learning Trust provides a model for an LEA for the 21st century – entrepreneurial, ambitious and self-sustaining.

I firmly believe that local authorities still have a vital role to play in education, providing leadership, support, challenge, and local accountability.

Hackney has changed a huge amount in the past 15 years, with most of that change being very much for the better. However, it is still a borough where there are high levels of poverty and need. Nearly half of our housing stock is in the social rented sector, and more than a third of our children are living in poverty. It is our job, as a local authority, and it is my job as elected Mayor, to create life-changing opportunities for the people in this borough who most need them. Those opportunities start with a first class education, from early years upwards.

It is that first-class education that is transforming the social and economic life chances of children from the poorest backgrounds which will ensure our young people have the skills and confidence to take advantage of everything that the economic growth of Hackney and East London now has to offer them. It is education that will eventually cut off the supply of unskilled and disenfranchised young men who are so vulnerable to joining criminal gangs.

I fundamentally disagree with this government’s insistence that locally elected leaders have little or no part to play in this process. Rather, I agree with Sir Michael Wilshaw, in his role as head of Ofsted, that local authority leadership has an important part to play in advancing school standards.

While Hackney’s experience does show what damage an incompetent LEA could do to local schools in the past, it also shows what a hugely positive impact a highfunctioning and ambitious local authority can have on the education, aspirations and life-chances of every child that it serves.

While Hackney, and London as a whole, can be rightly proud of what has been achieved in the capital’s schools, we cannot afford to be complacent. That is why we continue to focus on further improvement.I was re-elected in 2014 with a manifesto commitment to achieving 70 per cent of Hackney children getting 5 or more A*-C GSCEs including English and Maths by 2018; and ensuring that every one of our schools is judged good or outstanding, as is the case with all our secondaries.

The threats to education in London now are different to those that existed in the 1980s and 1990s, where incompetence, low aspiration and political interference had such a malign influence, as well as almost two decades of desperate under-resourcing.

Now the stripping away of local authority funding for school improvement and the undermining of local accountability by central government poses new obstacles to be overcome. Alongside that, London’s affordable housing crisis will take its toll as it becomes more and more difficult for teachers to live even within commuting distance of the schools where they are most needed. Whereas once it was parents leaving London in search of better schools, now it is teachers in search of homes they can afford.

In that sense, London’s revolution in school standards has become the victim of its own success. Alan Wood, Hackney’s DCS, once said: “We will know that we have been successful when Hackney parents,instead of fighting to get their children out of our schools, will be fighting to get them in.” Certainly in Hackney, the rapid improvement in local schools has been one of the single biggest drivers of house price inflation beyond the bubble that is being experienced across the capital.

Alongside widening economic inequality, the sustainability of this city and its public services is the next major challenge for London’s leaders. That is why it is crucial that central government takes London devolution seriously, and also that those local leaders can continue to play a role in the delivery of all local services, including education.

Mayor Jules Pipe, Chair, London Councils

Jules Pipe is the elected Mayor of Hackney and chair of London Councils. He was reelected as Mayor of Hackney for his fourth term in May 2014. He has been chair of London Councils since June 2010. Before becoming Mayor, Jules worked as a national newspaper journalist as well as serving as a ward councillor from 1996 to 2002, and as leader of the council from June 2001 until his election as Mayor in 2002. He was born and grew up in east London, and has lived in Hackney for 20 years. In 2008 he was awarded a CBE in recognition of his service to local government.