After speaking to Anne Canning at length about education management and policy, it’s easy to discern that she is a fine bureaucrat, but harder to imagine her former life as a schoolteacher.
Until she comes across two uniformed schoolgirls stuck in the revolving door at 1 Reading Lane, Hackney Learning Trust’s HQ.
“Her shoe is stuck, pull it out from under the door,” Canning calmly advises, as she coaches girls out of their predicament.
“Are you all right?” she asks warmly as they emerge, gazing at her with interest. Clearly Anne Canning has a natural way with young people, which is heartening.
Canning, Hackney Council’s star hire, is the new Director of Education and Head of Hackney Learning Trust. She brings with her 30 years’ teaching experience, including 10 years as head of Camden School for Girls.
But it’s Canning’s five year tenure at Tower Hamlets Council that makes her something of a bird of paradise among interviewees.
As Service Head for Learning and Achievement at Tower Hamlets Council, she was responsible for raising educational standards under its now-disgraced mayor Lutfur Rahman, who was ousted last month after being found guilty of electoral fraud.
Asked, probably for the umpteenth time, what it was like working under Rahman amid a long string of corruption allegations and lengthy legal proceedings, she sighs: “Tower Hamlets is having a moment.”
Drawing a line in the sand between the politics and the day-to-day delivery of services was crucial to getting the job done. “If you’ve got strong people who are delivering the service, you can transcend what’s going on above you,” she says.
But for all his faults, says Canning, the mayor made education a priority: “Lutfur was always very respectful of the schools and very keen that any policy change he had would support that moving forward…” She makes a point to praise the work of her fellow officers.
“As a service the officers were beyond reproach in the way they managed their work and I’ll say that until the end.”
During her tenure at Tower Hamlets, several of the borough’s schools were put into special measures for failure to safeguard pupils against extremism, an ordeal amidst which she was singled out by one of Tower Hamlets Council’s biggest critics, the blogger Ted Jeory, as “excellent”.
Canning feels many important mechanisms are already in place in Hackney to observe and act on the signs that students may be at risk. “I can certainly bring a significant amount of learning from Tower Hamlets. But I’m not coming into a void here. I’m coming into somewhere that’s pretty well established,” she says.
While Canning is adamant that, for the council’s part, there should be “no negotiation around safeguarding”, she is aware there’s only so much a local authority can do to control a young person’s education.
Unregistered faith schools
One angle Canning will need to verse herself in quickly is the unregistered faith schools in Stamford Hill, which made national headlines last year after an Dispatches documentary reported 10 unregistered yeshiva schools in the area’s Orthodox Haredi community.
“I’m aware of the schools as lots of people have told me about them and I need to be curious. I will be curious,” says Canning.
But, she points out, unregistered schools, as well as homeschooling are “an area where there’s lack of clarity in the legislation”.
Canning hopes the next government will close gaps in legislation around non-traditional forms of education, and that Ofsted and the Department for Education “come to a faster, more secure way of dealing with the issues”.
“Because whilst they have legislative framework which allows you to home educate your child with fairly gentle boundaries – you don’t even have to report in to the local authority that you are home educating your child … but they allow unregistered schools to continue without inspection framework. Our potential to intervene is very very limited.”
Canning takes a pragmatic approach to meeting demand for school places, as the borough faces a shortage of 840 primary and 750 secondary school places by 2020.
Dealing with the shortage requires a “risk analysis”, says Canning, to allow the borough to cope with the well-regarded, but increasingly jagged structural landscape of Hackney’s schools, as several new free schools prepare to open, and the council looks for new ways to create local authority places without government money.
The relative autonomy of yet-to-open free schools poses another planning challenge. Hackney Wick Academy has been set back a year (see below story) from its original opening date. Instances like this “do impact on the plan,” says Canning.
“But the plan is nimble enough to have some room for adjustment. It’s not ideal, but that’s the process in which we work.
“If the free school is delayed by a year, which may have long term impact on it, and you’re looking for a solution to that – can those children go elsewhere? The planning is not so tight that we can’t find a solution.”
Canning’s appointment follows the death of former Learning Trust head Tricia Okoruwa in September 2014.