Ten years ago, Hackney schools were notorious. 40% of 11 year olds opted out of the borough for their secondary education, while an incompetent Council, described by the chief inspector of schools at the time as the worst in the country, deteriorated into bankruptcy and was stripped of the power to run its own schools.
Now the Learning Trust, which took over education services from the Council in 2002, charged with the task of reversing the fortunes of Hackney schools, have handed back the reins to the local authority. The Trust and the Council are both confident that there is no need to extend the Trust’s contract and that the Council are now in a strong position to take over.
In a new report, educationalists have evaluated the Trust’s legacy in a new study analysing how the Trust managed to reverse the once-grim fate of Hackney schools.
TRIAL AND ERROR
“The time has come for radical change” read Hackney’s Ofsted report in November 2000. The “desperate” situation led to the forced privatisation of Hackney education services in 1999. But the first attempt at privatisation was ill-fated. The contract’s sole bidder, the for-profit education services company Nord Anglia, gained partial control of Hackney’s education services for three years.
“It was so bureaucratic,” said Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills at the time, who initially had high hopes for the contract. One month into the takeover, the contract’s leader left the company without explanation, adding to concerns about the transparency of for-profit privatisation of public services. “We were learning,” Morris added.
In searching for the right outsourcing contract one thing became clear: profit-making was not the answer. The Learning Trust, a not-for-profit company, took over Hackney’s education services in 2002 in the first contract of its kind—its model is yet to be replicated in another borough.
Throughout its ten year contract, the Trust has operated independently of the Council with the specific aim of improving schools in the borough.
Several such interventions were taking place in under-performing councils in the country at the time, but the Trust’s model was unique in being not-for-profit privatisation and run by educationalists. The appointment of Mike Tomlinson, former chief inspector of Ofsted, as the first Chief of the Trust was dubbed a “stroke of genius” that set the Trust apart from other privatisation contracts by focusing on “education rather than business.”
Education services were “released from council bureaucracy and enabled The Learning Trust to act swiftly and with agility” said Estelle Morris. “The Learning Trust… protected education in Hackney from the organisational failures elsewhere in the local authority.”
The Trust’s approach focused on three goals: to raise standards, mainly by recruiting the best possible staff to build schools’ capacity to improve; to invest in existing schools through the now-defunct Building Schools for the Future programme, designed to improve state schools across the country; and to create more school places to meet growing demand.
EDUCATION IN TRANSITION
Fast forward a decade, and parents are fighting to get their children into the Hackney schools, rather than out of them—this was the precisely the goal of The Learning Trust when it took over. Hackney schools are now among the most improved in the country, and GCSE results have risen above the national average despite deprivation levels remaining the same.
On 1st August, the Trust passed the reins back to the Council, in keeping with the original contract. While many of Trust’s staff have been retained and the Council’s education services, which will now be called the Hackney Learning Trust, the transition marks a fundamental change for Hackney schools, reintegrating its education services into the Council fold.
But representatives of both the Council and the Trust are confident that the transition will be a smooth one. The Learning Trust’s Chief Executive Alan Wood has said that there is no need to extend the contract, as the Council is in a strong position to take over.
THE LEARNING TRUST’S LEGACY
The Trust’s unique model of high standards and collaboration through not-for-profit privatisation has been analysed in a new report, “A Revolution in a Decade” funded by Leannta Education Associated.
The report provides in-depth results analysis and interviews with those on the front lines of Hackney schools, distilling the Trust’s achievements into ten “interdependent” C’s: concept, capacity, challenge, courage, creativity, collaboration, confidence, communication, celebration, and consistency.
Notably, “competition” between schools—which has been associated with Michael Gove’s academies and free schools programme which encourages schools to compete with one another in order to raise standards, didn’t make the list.
Academies by design are independent of the local authority and are afforded more liberties than ordinary state schools. Three new free schools—which are also central government controlled—have also been approved for the borough and are now looking for sites. These shifts in the structure of schools have been at the forefront of Michael Gove’s education reforms.
But Alan Wood, who came up with The Learning Trust model was its Chief Executive throughout its tenure, stresses that changing the structure of schools, such as converting them to academy status or opening free schools, does not in itself breed improvement.
Well-known individual schools like Mossbourne Community Academy do not make a good school system—it’s how a school system functions at its core that makes or breaks it. “Even in its darkest days, Hackney had schools doing exceptionally well,” says Wood. Hence the refusal to take for granted the correlation between poverty and low achievement.
“Too often people think you have a failing school, you have a structural change and everything’s fixed” says Wood. “In fact, the education system has to become effective before you can introduce a structural change.”
“The academies programme is just now beginning to make contribution to Hackney schools… Improvement in GCSEs has been driven by non-academy schools, and academies have joined in that progress.”
The Learning Trust did not work around the academies programme, it worked the academies programme into what has become known as Hackney’s “family of schools.”
According to the report, “embracing the academy programme was expedient rather than philosophical.” Investment in existing state schools was no longer an option after the Building Schools for the Future project was axed in 2011, so the only way to create more school places while maintaining the collaboration within the system was to take a cautious approach to new academies.
Academy schools are run by central government and can be sponsored by private companies, individuals or foundations. While they are often praised for their rigour and discipline, the extra liberties afforded to academies has made them a target for criticism among teacher’s unions and state education campaigners.
“We didn’t want those who became islands unto themselves, or those who wouldn’t cooperate,” said Sir Mike Tomlinson of the borough’s approach to academies.
Going forward, a principal challenge for Hackney schools is creating more places to meet growing demand. At the moment, that means building more academies and free schools, as they are the only types of new schools allowed to open.
“If Gove tells us the only game in town is this particular one, we have to operate within that provision,” Wood says. “Our need is growing and we want to make sure we can meet that provision.” All of the borough’s non-religious secondary schools are oversubscribed, and more primaries will soon be needed.
An additional secondary academy, nicknamed “Mossbourne 2” is due to open in September 2014, off the back of Mossbourne Community Academy’s success. By September 2016 another primary school will be needed, as well as another secondary in addition to the new Mossbourne.
Three free secondary schools have also been given approval to look for sites in the borough, and could open as soon as September 2013.
There is no question that the structure of Hackney schools is changing with the introduction of new types of schools, a shift that many critics argue will create an uneven playing field for Hackney’s students, attracting top students to certain schools or to certain post codes.
But as the report concludes, a successful school system won’t wrest on these laurels. The assumption that poverty breeds low achievement has too long been an excuse for low standards, the report concludes: “It may be argued that the outstanding school is part of the failing school’s problem because it attracts the best students. We don’t accept excuses like that.”
If the Learning Trust’s goal of collaborative accountability within a school system holds water, structures beyond local control will not dictate the overall success of Hackney’s schools.