Crowded out

Reprinted here is a long article from the Guardian’s Education supplement. It covers the recent closure of Kingsland School but also looks at the bigger picture of why Hackney Council is closing schools and the creep towards privatisation being imposed by national government policy with its specialist schools drive and local government with its unwillingness to listen to the concerns of working class residents. Looking at the article, you might ask yourself why a school in Stoke Newington which is obviously successful and serving a generally more middle class catchment area can get £1 million in extra funding whereas a school like Kingsland which is improving from its “failing” status can be axed. Class sizes or class discrimination?

There is chaos in the London borough of Hackney as one school is forced to close and another is forced to take extra pupils. Melanie McFadyean reports

17th June 2003
The Guardian

Almost half of all Hackney’s children go out of the borough to school. Many of them have no choice. Of the borough’s nine secondary schools, one is for boys, three for girls, three are denominational and two are coeducational. One of the co-eds, Kingsland, is about to be closed. The other is Stoke Newington school, which, under its current headteacher Mark Emmerson, is much sought after and over-subscribed.

In April, Emmerson sent out a letter to parents. (I declare an interest here: I am a Stoke Newington parent.) As a result of the closure of Kingsland, itself a matter of pain and controversy for its pupils, parents and teachers, Emmerson was told by the Learning Trust, Hackney’s education authority, that his school would be taking an extra 29 pupils in year 7 in September. (Had the Learning Trust tried to put 30 in they may not have got it past the relevant committees, as 30 constitutes an extra class.)
Given the overcrowding, why was the school expected to take on so many extra pupils? Because, said a Learning Trust spokesman, it was deemed to have the space.

Emmerson didn’t agree. “We will be too overcrowded,” he wrote to parents. “With increased numbers, the first things to break down are the systems we have for managing students; behaviour and attendance are particularly hard to maintain. We do not have enough staff. We do not have enough money, we do not have enough room. It is suggested that we convert offices, dining rooms and the staff room into classroom space.”

In order to maximise space, Emmerson told parents he would need £1,170,000. “We’re having to fight for every penny because there isn’t contingency in the budgets to deal with these issues,” he told the Guardian. “Success is a hard-won prize and very easily damaged, and that’s why I am fighting for the resources. We are dealing with the fall-out from the Kingsland closure and there is no recognition that this has an impact on schools around them.”

By dint of relentless pressure on the Learning Trust and the DfES, Emmerson has secured a substantial tranche of the £1m-plus. A compromise has been struck. But meanwhile what is happening to the Kingsland pupils and their teachers?

“We are not helping Kingsland,” Emmerson explained. “The 29 students will not be from Kingsland families.” So where are the Kingsland children going?

Of those on roll at the beginning of the year, some have already been “shuffled out”, as the Learning Trust’s director of pupil services, PJ Wilkinson, explains. There is a lot of turnover, or “churn” as it is known, in Hackney, so as places became available during the year, kids were moved on. Some Kingsland teachers weren’t happy about the way this was done: according to one teacher there, pupils would simply not turn up and it would transpire they had been moved. Wilkinson says the speed of changeover was surely “a good thing, not a bad thing”.

At the end of May, Wilkinson told the Guardian: “We are seeking school places for approximately 150 students in Kingsland years 7 and 8 in alternative local schools. So far these places have mainly been identified in out-of-borough schools, although there have been small numbers placed at several Hackney secondary schools.”

But 105 in current years 7 and 8 have not yet been placed for September. “I cannot say where they are going. Many have turned down offers, some are holding out for Stoke Newington,” says Wilkinson. “We believe they will be placed but they will be subject to considerable pressure when places come up.
“If they have turned down two places, we’d have to take the position that parents are being unreasonable. They have to take responsibility. We want consent not coercion, but coercion comes at the point at the end of the process. We are trying to steer them without using the maximum harshness that we are allowed to use. It’s terribly difficult.”

There have been problems, too, for current year 9 students. At the beginning of May, a Learning Trust representative told the Guardian that the remaining 141 pupils would go to the Sarah Centre, a new “14+” centre at Hackney Community College, for the two years of their GCSEs, where they will apparently have a pupil-teacher ratio of one to eight. But it would appear this key stratagem was not, in fact, signed up. Jackie Hurst, head of marketing at the college, said: “We are in the middle of considering it.”

On May 20, PJ Wilkinson said the college had given agreement to go ahead, although contracts were still being written. But on May 22, Hurst said: “There is no definite news on the movement of children from Kings land school; we won’t know anything [until] some time after June 2.”

On June 3, a spokeswoman at the college told the Guardian: “Our governors are hoping to take a final decision on whether Kingsland pupils will come to the Sarah Centre on June 10. Nothing has been agreed.” In the event, the deal was rubber-stamped.

Asked what she thought of the trust’s assumption that the centre would sign up, Hurst said she supposed it “was a risk they [the Learning Trust] took. Presumably they had no other option.” The Learning Trust said: “This agreement with the colleges was included in our submissions to the adjudicator on the closure of Kingsland. This has been agreed at progressive levels of detail over the last few months.

“We have a strong partnership with the colleges, who have been happy to speak to students over the last few months on the understanding that they would deliver, as is now the case.”

The impression that the Sarah Centre was definitely signed up was underlined by the Learning Trust’s directions to pupils at Kingsland for choosing their GCSEs.

The pupils going to the new centre were shown their GCSE options at a meeting in school on April 9. A few weeks later, another option sheet was given out. It was a list of seven compulsory subjects, with students asked to select three choices from a grid of subjects. There was no language option, Turkish and French having been deleted from the former list. A note explained that foreign languages will be on offer “where appropriate”. GCSE students will have been relieved to hear last week that there would now be “opportunities to study foreign languages”.

But the choices are tight. A student could not, for example, study geography, history and sociology – only one would be on offer. In the compulsory vocational list, from which students must pick one, are business studies, construction crafts, food technology, health and social care, leisure and tourism and motor vehicle engineering. There may be students to whom none of these appeals. Others might like to do more than one.

“This is a dumbed-down curriculum, and for some of our kids this year 9 to 11 period is the one chance they have – and it’s a chance that’s in danger of being blown,” says one Kingsland teacher.

The teachers were told of the proposal to close the school in July last year, and were offered a special one-off payment as an incentive to stay for the final year, a proposal that was to be clarified at the start of the academic year. The NUT didn’t get copies of the proposals until the end of February. It had asked for an across-the-board payment, but the plan was instead to pay between £3,000 and £6,000, with higher rates going to senior management.

There were strings attached. Anyone suffering more than 10 days sickness during the year would be paid only at the discretion of the Learning Trust. “Failure to accept the above in its entirety,” wrote Wilkinson, “will result in withdrawal of the scheme.”

People felt “deleted”, as one Kingsland teacher put it, and some decided to get out early. “Some of these are people who would have been prepared to work for another year or two to see the kids through. There will be continuity problems for kids going on with their year groups without the teachers they know.”

Redundancy would be an option, although redeployment was not ruled out. In May, Cheryl Newsome, executive director of people management at the Learning Trust, sent letters giving an estimated redundancy/early retirement quotation. But she added that final decisions would be made by the director of education and would be “based on the contingency of the service. If there is a suitable alternative post… the organisation will not authorise redundancy.”

Mark Lushington, spokesman for Hackney Teachers Association, which represents NUT members, says: “Many people have made plans on the basis of being made redundant and do not want to be redeployed.” They may have little choice.

Mark Emmerson says he would like to have seen Kingsland left open for another year until a planned new school, Mossborough Academy, opens in September 2004.

“Kingsland is an improving school, it isn’t going down the pan and if they’d waited, all the issues would have been sorted [and] it might have provided a better educational environment for the students.” Anne Shapiro, head of nearby Haggerston school for girls, agrees. “A lot of us feel the school is making progress. The school could have been given more time to improve and been allowed to see if it was possible to come out of special measures.” (The school is due for an inspection at which this is expected to happen.)

Wilkinson counters that Kingsland was a dying school and it would have been a “betrayal” of Hackney parents to keep it open. “If you move students en bloc you reproduce the same problems. You can’t shake off reputations; it’s better to break the thing up than keep it together.

“Fresh Start didn’t work. The new schools weren’t new enough and the bad reputations were transferred.”

There is a subtext at work in this story. Hackney desperately needs new schools, which it will get only if it conforms to the government’s strategy of setting up city academies. When Emmerson went to the DfES with Wilkinson in May, he recalls, “we suggested some recording of the pitfalls experienced during this school closure. The argument was that if there are to be more city academies, schools will be closed and there’s a cost involved for other schools. They want three city academies in Hackney and one they want is planned for the Kingsland site.”

The new city academies, of which Mossborough is one, are politically sensitive. Wilkinson insists they are not part of a drive towards privatising public services. “I’m very careful about the word privatisation. It’s not what an academy is – it’s state, no fees, no profits, not like private schools.” But pressed on the fundamental difference between city academies and ordinary secondary schools, he said there was “an interest in encouraging enterprise to bring money into schools”.

There will be more school closures to clear the way for city academies. If the chaos surrounding the Kingsland closure is anything to go by, one can only hope the DfES learns from the bumpy ride in Hackney and stops to question the ethos and financial arrangements that are the subtext of these upheavals.

The Learning Trust
Hackney education authority was in serious trouble when it was disbanded in August 2002. It had previously been partly privatised after consultants KPMG told the education secretary that outsourcing was the answer. Nord Anglia took over some key areas of the borough’s education functions. But in October 2000, an Ofsted inspection criticised the council for failure to provide “a secure context for the improvement of educational standards”.

In August 2001, the government announced plans to hand over Hackney’s education provision to an independent, not-for-profit trust. The secretary of state appointed three members to the trust’s board, including the chair and two “independent experts”; a director of education and three members of the senior management team would also be included. Other members would be selected from local heads and governors.

The trust was to be contracted to run education for the borough to “secure maximal revenue and capital funding for Hackney’s schools, including the exploration of a PFI/PPP bid to bring the condition of Hackney’s schools up to standards appropriate to the 21st century”.
Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, became the first chairman of the Learning Trust when he retired from Ofsted in April 2002.

A spokesman says its contract is “managed by the council and they retain ultimate authority for education in the borough. They must approve our annual plan [which] includes our bud get. Councillors sit on our board, and… the education scrutiny panel can review us against any of the terms of the contract. In the memorandum of understanding [annex to the contract] we undertake to respect the role of democratically elected representatives and the council’s scrutiny committees in reviewing decisions and the strategy of the trust.”

Only one member of the board is an elected representative of the local population; the others are selected and therefore largely unaccountable to users. It is this aspect that worries critics of this new semi-privatised LEA, who feel it is undemocratic. Local NUT divisional secretary Mick Regan says: “There is a serious lack of democracy in the Learning Trust, which is in effect a quango.”