Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

The English Education Revolution – Sarah Atkin

2024 will represent a significant anniversary for England’s education system and, for political reasons in an election year, might not get the spotlight it deserves. 

On 1st September 2004, New Labour’s first City Academy opened its doors.  Mossbourne Community Academy, in the London Borough of Hackney, was built on the site of the former Hackney Downs Grammar.  

Hackney Downs had boasted Harold Pinter, Stephen Berkoff and Sir Michael Caine among its alumni but by the 1990’s had made national headlines with the label ‘Britain’s worst comprehensive school.’  Amidst controversy and a great deal of political ‘heat’, it closed its doors in 1995.  

I declare a personal interest.  I lived in Hackney in the 1990’s.  I was working on the fringes of politics at that time and was also a School Governor in a local primary school.  I was engaged with the fraught debates around Hackney (and inner-city) education in London where there was genuinely an air of fatalism, in contrast to the wonderful positive energy and vitality from the (mostly deprived) children I saw in school every Friday.  The Hackney Downs site was near my flat.  When it closed, I regularly walked past the empty, sad-looking building and thought to myself how fantastic it would be if somebody with heaps of money were to build an amazing school right here for the children in my school.  They deserved the best.  

Fast forward a few years, after I’d long departed Hackney for the Highlands, and this had become a reality.    

First, some context. 

The City Academy ‘model’ was the Blair government’s radical attempt at structural reform of education, specifically inner-city, non-selective, comprehensive education.  With the Blair government consumed with a near missionary zeal to improve schools, political debate was (in a nutshell) asking whether a high deprivation/low attainment correlation had to be inevitable.  Was it morally right or socially just for the school system (unconsciously or not) to expect less of pupils from challenging backgrounds?  Should we try something different to challenge this orthodoxy by putting educators in the driving seat?  The government’s answer was emphatically, ‘yes’.  

Academy schools were (and still are) directly funded from central government but the original model was specific to areas of high deprivation in cities to boost educational attainment by liberating the spirit and operational independence of educators and school leaders.  The political and educational aims were both ambitious. 

Hackney was an area with low levels of educational attainment and high levels of deprivation.  Education in Hackney had already been removed from local authority control a number of years before.  By 2002, The Learning Trust was handed a 10-year contract to manage education in the authority.  The Learning Trust was the UK’s first not-for-profit company to take over an entire council education function. Politically, Hackney was a focus for reform; the place to try something new. 

Mossbourne Community Academy had a lot riding on it as ‘the first’.  Much was invested in its success – financially, emotionally (for Hackney parents and their children, for teachers and staff); educationally and politically.  The school was sponsored by the late Sir Clive Bourne, a local businessman turned philanthropist who believed passionately in the potential of Hackney’s children.  The award-winning building was designed by Sir Richard Rogers; the educational philosophy and vision (discipline; pupil safety; high expectations of every student; excellence in teaching and a broad curriculum) very much that of the first Principal, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who later went on to head up the Inspectorate, OFSTED.  I’d remained in touch with the Head Teacher where I’d served as a school governor and she told me Mossbourne pupils were walking around Hackney as if they were at Eton!  This school was making a statement.  

Unlike in the 1990’s, the first cohort at Mossbourne made headlines for achieving some of the best GCSE results in England at that (or any) time.  Two years later, this was repeated with their ‘A’ level results.  Pupils from Mossbourne were offered Oxbridge places and other Russell Group universities – teenagers from Hackney.  It is hard to comprehend the impact this had.    

Some cynics put the success story down to Sir Michael Wilshaw’s brilliance; the attention focused on the school and the money invested in this project.  

Sir Michael was (and remains) an outstanding leader and educator.  Here’s the thing, though.  Almost 20 years after it opened its doors, and long after Sir Michael stepped down, Mossbourne continues its story of outstanding educational success.  The hard yards are spent sustaining this level of success, year after year.  The subsequent Principals are custodians of an incredible legacy and plainly committed to sustaining the original mission well into the future.  

I paid the school a visit recently to see for myself.  Out of curiosity, yes, and with a degree of emotion returning to my old haunts.  Also, I am now an elected politician who cares passionately about the power of education to change lives and have followed the Mossbourne (and Hackney) stories with interest over the years.   

Think on this.  Over 40% of Mossbourne pupils are in receipt of free school meals, yet, the Progress 8 ‘value added’ score for the school is 1.23 (1).  This means that pupils will achieve at least one grade higher in each qualification at GCSE in this school compared with pupils of similar academic starting points.  The Attainment 8 Score for Mossbourne is 63.5% (2).  The English average, 46.2%.  By every performance measure, disadvantaged pupils at Mossbourne significantly outperform non-disadvantaged pupils in the rest of England, including in Progress 8 and Attainment 8 (astonishingly, disadvantaged children across Hackney outperform non-disadvantaged children in the rest of England too.)  

Of the 2023 6th form leavers, 16 secured an Oxbridge place and 62% of the cohort a Russell Group university place, including 8 medics.  (The school runs architectural and medical bursary programmes.)  I can hear the cries of ‘but it’s not all about exams’.  No, it isn’t.  The school offers a broad curriculum alongside many extra-curricular opportunities.  I saw some incredible artwork and terrific musical facilities.  There is also first class SEND provision (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities), with autism a specialism. 

It was a privilege to meet the current Principal, whose own career had been nurtured through Mossbourne.  

I was shown round by her Assistant and a former pupil who’d returned to the school as an employee.  His insights of the school, from the perspective of adulthood were fascinating.  Not just discussions of Shakespeare as he loved theatre (‘Hamlet’ is studied in the equivalent of our S2) but on the discipline.  The school is strict.  Incredibly so, by most liberal sensibilities.  As a teenager he found the expectations of behaviour, and the rigour, difficult.  It took time to learn why this was necessary and that it did have a purpose.  Despite the struggle, he knew the teachers always had his back.  They cared.  That’s what made the difference in him embracing the educational opportunities; teachers not giving up.  

High expectations of behaviour, with instant consequences for transgressions and no excuses, is not often perceived as a form of equality, but it is.  Consistency in behaviour management right across the school is also a demonstration of teacher solidarity. The school prioritises safety.  Clear boundaries and set routines are one part of that agenda. 

Also, I noticed the school was quiet and calm.  Pupils moving between lessons without fuss or distraction.  I thought how much better these quiet corridors must be for vulnerable pupils, autistic pupils or anyone with sensory issues.  A different take on ‘inclusive practice’ in action. 

This is not an easy school.  Outside the school gates lie enormous social and economic challenges, the same as every inner-city school.  I did not meet parents but presumably, they all know what the school is about and sign up for the behaviour standards and academic rigour.  

Now, Mossbourne’s philosophy does have its critics.  It will not be everybody’s choice of school.   This blog is not to advocate for a right or wrong way to run a school.  What I do know, however is that for Hackney families, it has been working for nearly 20 years.  

My key point is that there is a diversity of provision in England.  Could there ever be a Mossbourne, or similar in Scotland in the state sector?  The Academy ‘model’ was all about educators being given the freedom to innovate and the autonomy and responsibility to get on with it, including having the freedom to recruit (a freedom which to anybody running an organisation is a no-brainer, yes?)   

Good schools become great schools because of the calibre of the leadership and teachers.  If we invest in our teachers and school leaders then what sense is there in ‘boxing’ them in?  They need maximum creative freedom and the authority to do their job.  

Being an Academy school is, of course not a panacea.  Given 80% of schools in England are now Academy schools, there will be successful and less successful schools.  This, however is surely a better problem to have than a system that is formally equitable – with everything the same – but with inequitable outcomes, based mainly on socio-economic status, i.e. where you start is where you end up. 

Aside from Mossbourne Academy, the wider Hackney education story over the past 25 years is truly remarkable and worthy of far greater attention.  From the days when the local authority lost the right to manage the service, its educational performance now ranks amongst the very best in the UK – in an area with high levels of deprivation.   

The deprivation ranking for Hackney may have improved from 2010 (2nd most deprived borough in England) to 2020 (where it ranks 22nd) but this is still significant.  Hackney is extremely deprived in the domain of barriers to housing and services and has a high child poverty rank AND YET, it is significantly less deprived in the education domain (at 229th).  So, this education revolution has broken the correlation between poverty and low educational attainment.  A story repeated across London.    

With 2024 an election year, this anniversary does feel like a turning point for the Academy movement.  The thing about something that is working well is politicians too often cannot resist the urge to meddle.  It did take political will to drive through reform in England’s schools but many have short memories and take for granted what can so easily be lost.  It is always worth remembering that children from deprived backgrounds rarely get second chances.  School is their one shot at opportunity and the chance of a better life.  

As Scotland comes to terms with PISA, I feel we can learn from England’s experience of the past 20 years.  The good and not so good.  Plainly, our reform agenda hasn’t delivered on its promise.  The evidence is screaming this at us.  That does not mean everything is wrong.  There is a lot that is good.  We invest heavily in our teachers and, as a society, value teaching as a profession.  Scotland has always placed great value on a holistic and inclusive approach to education – with breadth as a hallmark.  Yet, things aren’t moving in the right direction.  

Is it standards or structures holding us back?  Was it the imposition of a philosophy and a pedagogy from “on high” that is strangling the creative potential of our educators to do their job?  Is the bureaucratic landscape too cluttered – national, regional, local -?  Should the bureaucracy just get out of the way more?  

I do not pretend to know the answers, but perhaps a good starting point would be to allow our teachers and Head Teachers to speak openly and publicly about how education looks from their vantage point.  Transformation is possible.  Hackney has proved it.  

Sarah Atkin is a member of the Commission on School Reform and an independent Councillor on Highland Council. She is writing in a personal capacity.

  • Progress 8 is a ‘value-added’ measure to ascertain where a pupil starts at secondary level and the impact of school on their attainment, e.g. a +1 score shows that students in that school achieved one grade higher in each qualification at GCSE.  
  • Attainment 8: schools in England receive a score based on how well pupils have performed in up to 8 qualifications.  These include English, maths, 3 EBacc subjects and 3 other approved qualifications.  

Other statistics referenced were taken from:

Department for Education

Hackney Council (Hackney Profile 2020)