Pictured: Francis Beckett. Inset: Lord Adonis
Published: 21 September, 2012
A Labour peer’s account of the revolution that took place in Islington’s schools under the Tony Blair government has been condemned as “dishonourable”. Lord Andrew Adonis – who lives in Islington – was one of the architects of the academy school system. In his book Education, Education, Education, he describes how the borough’s schools were failing and condemns the-then council and teachers. But his version of events has been challenged by Francis Beckett, whose own book throws a very different light on events. He maintains that there was nothing wrong with Islington’s schools, but they had to be made to look as if they were failing to justify the decision by Tony Blair – at the time a resident in Richmond Crescent, Barnsbury – not to send his children there.
Here is what Lord Adonis writes in his book...
TONY and Cherie sent their sons to The London Oratory, a Catholic state school in Fulham, rather than to either of their then-terrible local comprehensives, Highbury Grove and Islington Green.
In their position, I would have done the same. Neither Tony nor, for that matter, I was hypocritical about this. We both supported parental choice within the state system, including church schools, and we were both trying to do something radical to turn around failing comprehensives.
At some Islington primary schools, a decade ago, half of the pupils were going on to private schools – including at Canonbury, the school my children attended.
Many of the rest went to state schools outside the borough, often an hour or more away. Only a handful of children, mainly from the local council estates, went on to the local comprehensives. It was a burning ambition of mine to see that this disgrace did not continue.
There are now two good state secondary schools in my part of Islington. An entirely new academy opened in 2007, sponsored by the Church of England but with admissions open to the whole local community without faith tests.
Also nearby is Highbury Grove, a former grammar school, which as a comprehensive in the 1970s went into a spiral of decline similar to Hackney Downs, but over the last five years has improved significantly, thanks to strong leadership, competition from new academies in Islington and Hackney, and a complete rebuilding.
The proportion of Islington’s 11-year-olds going on to secondary schools in the borough has risen sharply, including more of the local middle class.
That is now, in 2012. Back in early 1998, shortly before I joined Tony Blair’s staff, I gave Derek Sawyer, the Labour leader of Islington Council, a piece of my mind about the seize of the borough’s comprehensives at a party meeting.
Derek didn’t disagree, said he knew that “something” had to be done, and by asking if I would become a governor of a “fresh start” school which was to replace George Orwell, the borough’s worst comprehensive on Islington’s northern border with Haringey. I accepted the invitation.
At the time I was a journalist on The Observer and knew a little about the “fresh start” policy.
This was fortuitous for, had it been a few months later when I was at No 10, I would have known more about the policy but might have felt it inappropriate – or too high risk – to become a governor of a “fresh start” school, given that this was a government initiative.
But as it happened, I was to experience “fresh start” at first hand.
The “fresh start” scheme provided extra government funding to councils which closed failing schools and re-opened them, still as local authority comprehensives but with new names, new governors and new leadership.
George Orwell was one of 10 failing secondary schools to go down this “fresh start” route in 1998 and 1999.
It was not a happy experience. Many of the key decisions about the “fresh start” school had been taken by Islington Council by the time the school’s “interim governing body” was appointed to oversee the transition to the new school. This included the curriculum and the design of the refurbished buildings.
Islington Council had already decided on an arts and media specialism and the title “Islington Arts and Media School”, although many of us on the interim governing body thought the new school needed a mainstream academic specialism, maths or science, to tackle pitifully low standards in the core subjects at George Orwell.
More urgent was the chronic mismanagement of the refurbishment of the school’s buildings. No one was appointed by the council properly to manage the project. Deadlines were missed and the work deplorable.
On the opening day of the “new” school, there was no timetable, no IT, the bells and fire alarms weren’t working, and the school was a dangerous building site. Chaos reigned. A near riot, with racial overtones, took place a few days later.
The police descended; arrests were made; and it nearly led to the immediate closure of the school. Islington Council was largely useless throughout.
The appointment of the first headteacher took place within weeks of the constitution of the interim governing body.
The appointee, who was unsuited for the job, got it on the strong advice of Islington’s chief education officer, who left the borough for Hartlepool almost immediately afterwards.
Shortly thereafter, the local authority’s entire education service was failed by Ofsted, and its management contracted out. By then the school was again in crisis. The headteacher was forced to resign and the “fresh start” itself was fresh started.
It was a sorry story, and I shall shudder to think about it. Over time, the school overcame its founding problems and is now performing much better. But it was obvious to me that the “fresh start” policy was seriously flawed.
The local authority that had allowed George Orwell to fail so badly over so many years was hardly likely to be successful in managing its relaunch. Tellingly, other “fresh start” schools experienced similar problems.
Two of the initial 10 were soon closed outright, and several others have since become academies. “Fresh start” clearly wasn’t the answer to ailing comprehensives.”
• Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools by Andrew Adonis (Biteback Publishing, £12.99).
Francis Beckett’s response...
THERE'S a long and dishonourable history of former ministers tarting up their reputation by claiming that everything was awful until they came along to rescue it.
Until Andrew Adonis’s book came along, the most shameless was Norman Lamont, the Chancellor in John Major’s government, which privatised the railways, who has been telling the world recently how dreadful the nationalised railways were, hoping that no one will remember.
Some of us do remember. They weren’t perfect, but better than they are now.
Adonis and his master Tony Blair tore Islington education to pieces, threw out everything that was good in it, and now justify it by sneering at the dedicated men and women who taught in Islington before they were in power.
Blair did not wish to send his children to local schools, not because they were badly run – they were not – but because children from the council estates went there. The one true thing Adonis says is: “Only a handful of children, mainly from the local council estates, went on to the local comprehensives.”
In 1997, the first year of Blair’s premiership, Islington Green School, which had previously been doing well, was suddenly placed in special measures by Ofsted. Had it suddenly declined?
Years later we learned the truth. The inspectors unanimously agreed that the school was NOT failing.
Ofsted chief Chris Woodhead, without visiting the school, changed their verdict to one of “failing.”
Why? We cannot say for certain, but it provided an excellent excuse for Blair to send his children out of Islington – thereby helping to ensure that only children from the council estates went to local comprehensives, and providing a justification for privatising Islington’s schools.
Blair and Adonis irreparably damaged not just Islington’s schools, but schools all over Britain. They used Labour’s time to continue Thatcher’s work in education, and they should never be forgiven for it.
The full story of Blair, Adonis and Islington is told in my book, The Great City Academy Fraud (Continuum, 2007).