Hackney Downs, a comprehensive boys’ school, was shut in 1995 by Tory education secretary Gillian Shepherd following an unsuccessful campaign to keep it open. Its closure was described in a TES editorial (1 December 1995 behind paywall) as ‘not sympathetic euthanasia but premeditated murder by the Government.'
In 2004, a brand new academy, Mossbourne, opened on the razed site of Hackney Downs. Its head was Sir Michael Wilshaw. It’s often said, wrongly, that Sir Michael ‘turned round’ Hackney Downs. He couldn’t have. Hackney Downs was closed years before Mossbourne opened.
Mossbourne is an outstanding school. So are hundreds of other schools: both academies and non-academies.
Nevertheless, education secretary Justine Greening told the Teach First annual conference (24 October 2017 ) that academization ‘really started…a race to the top’. Leave aside the question about what is a race to the top (PISA’s greasy pole? The ‘global race’ trotted out during the Coalition?). The claim that academization is the only way to improve schools is untrue.
If this distortion weren’t bad enough, Greening demonstrates her ignorance of the ‘reforms’ she praises:
‘But schools like Hackney Downs and the rise of new academies that Labour actually first brought in then, of course, championed and pushed forward by us in government, like Mossbourne. Those sorts of reforms really started, I think, a race to the top... ’
It appears Greening thinks closing a school which some believe was deliberately set up to fail is a positive action.
Greening’s speech was entitled ‘We can challenge the impossible’. The ‘impossible’ included:
1 ‘Social mobility’ (an ill-defined notion, sounds good, but education’s role in social mobility is limited).
2 The ability to ‘shift the dial’ (meaningless soundbite).
3 Ensuring ‘equality of opportunity’ (desirable, but introducing market forces in education makes this less likely).
4 Ensuring ‘we tackle the opportunity deficit’ (This would better be achieved by funding schools properly).
5 Following an ‘evidence-based approach (fine, as long as it isn't just 'evidence' which is chosen or distorted to match a minister's prejudices).
Much of Greening’s speech was rhetorical waffle. The dial was shifted three times; teachers were described as ‘amazing’ five times*, ‘fantastic’ used four times, usually to describe Teach First. But there were nuggets of good sense. Greening stressed the importance of Continued Professional Development (CPD) – it’s a pity she confined this to the early stages of a teacher’s career. And she’s right to say ‘Britain’s never been a place where there has been equality of opportunity.’
But citing Hackney Downs as an example of reforms which supposedly improved English education is inexcusable. It shows Greening isn’t on top of her brief and raises the question about who is pulling her strings.
*Note to DfE: stop patronizing teachers by constantly calling them amazing. Teachers don’t need to be soft-soaped – just pay them adequately, treat them professionally and ensure they’ve got the resources to do their job.