A STUDY IN MENACE

HACKNEY DOWNS 1876 – 1995

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A SCHOOL

by Geoffrey Alderman


Several years ago I wrote a review of Culture & Equality, An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism – not the most prepossessing of titles. Yet in its way it was a cliff-hanger, for over the course of 400 pages its author, Brian Barry, carefully and surgically exposed the bogusness of what came to be known by the late 1980s as ‘multiculturalism’. That the late Professor Barry was firmly on the liberal left of the political spectrum could only further the book’s significance. If any additional evidence were needed to cite the lunacy and, worse, the ill-will of multiculturalism, one need only refer to Geoffrey Alderman’s new history documenting the fate of Hackney Downs School.

To a large extent the volume revisits Professor Alderman’s 1972 volume relating up to that time the story of the school that became universally known as Grocers’. However, the familiar territory is enhanced by footnotes and other material that was either not known more than forty years ago, or where the author was, for whatever reason, journalistically hidebound. He no longer is, and the gloves are clearly off.

There are ironies to be observed from that first edition. Alderman entitled his last chapter of the 1972 book, Destruction and Rebirth. The first referred to the catastrophic fire of 1963, the second to the sense of hope that existed. In the last pages of the first edition the author made the point that it was then too early to begin to write a critical assessment of Hackney Downs as a comprehensive school. Whichever way one looks at it, the decision to convert grammar schools into comprehensives was entirely political, which inevitably created controversy. Despite that, one can sense a mood of goodwill in the 1970s to ‘make the thing work’. The teachers who remained from the old days agreed that just as Hackney Downs had been a good grammar school in the past, there was a desire to make it a good comprehensive for the future. Sadly, as the years progressed, the stench of left-wing extremist politics was to confound the ideal.

The downward slope had already begun, however, by successive governments of both main political persuasions, in some ways unwittingly, in others not, creating along the way victims of circumstances in all spheres. The first of these pointers was the sleep walk into unfettered, uncontrolled immigration. How it could ever be thought that absorption into a host nation’s culture could be successfully adopted by inordinate numbers of one or more of the rest of the world’s cultures into particular concentrated areas of British cities is impossible to fathom. But that has been the legacy of the last half century. Unfortunately, it is not the only one, as I was able to see for myself over a significant seven-year period teaching English as a second language to primary school children of immigrant families in the London Borough of Newham during the late 70s and early 80s.


The emphasis in 1976 was still to integrate as speedily as possible children whose mother tongue was not English. The policy was unquestionably successful.


Co-operation from parents was always apparent and they were eager to get their children into mainstream education quickly. As the years progressed, that was deemed insufficient. Each culture concerned had to be treated equally, everyone given full weight, no matter that mores and customs in some cases were sharply counter to the host nation’s culture, let alone to the vigorous liberalism of the perpetrators of the new thinking. Multiculturalism began to rear its illogical and ill-judged head. As it did so, the infant head teacher of the school where I taught told me how she had just had to pacify a Jewish mother near to tears in her office. The woman had related how upon arrival in this country, her family did everything they could to adapt themselves to the mores, customs and life of the host nation in which they had settled. She now could not bear to see what was beginning to take shape.

The situation that mother spoke about could have stood for decades in the old Hackney Downs School. No single body of people could have done more to adapt to British school life than the Jews who made up half the school until the 1960s. Indeed they often led the way with their sense of application to study, to progress, and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, to succeed. Their parents co-operated fully with the staff, to the extent that, as Geoffrey Alderman relates, one head teacher, Vernon Barkway Pye, was not infrequently taken to task by some Jewish parents for their sons not being worked hard enough. By contrast this reviewer now firmly questions the wisdom of special syllabi that, for instance, includes Black history and Black literature. These were subjects that I taught, appropriately so, when I was in the central African bush of Zambia in the 1970s. To instigate such a policy in this country only emphasises the invalidity of multiculturalism.

It is therefore not surprising that with diminishing ideas of a host nation’s culture being regarded as the cornerstone of a given society, the extreme Left was invited to declare political open season. The results are spelled out in the final chapter of Geoffrey Alderman’s informative book. In those last years, for one example, certain ethnic factions refused to allow women to teach boys. Yet where was the same encouraging Left protesting against sexual discrimination?

The design was thus set fair for what Alderman describes as the murder of Hackney Downs School. Political manipulation knew no bounds. The school was eventually used as a dumping ground when numbers – again manipulatively – began to be reduced. The common mantra became one of determination to close the school down. Bang on cue, enter stage right Gillian Shepherd, Education Secretary in a Conservative government, into whose in-tray the case at last dropped. Therein lies the final irony, providing Geoffrey Alderman with his penultimate and spot-on main text sentence. The line is but one example of his eloquence throughout.

(The school’s) obliteration was seen, therefore, as part of a wider ‘class war’,
and if a right-wing national government delivered the coup de grace,
so much the better.

Much has been made of Sir Michael Wilshaw and the success of Mossbourne Academy, now on the site of Grocers’. Nobody would begrudge that success. It should be noted though: Sir Michael never had both hands manacled behind his back, the handcuffs applied by factions within and without the school in the manner deployed to John Kemp, Betty Hales and the other head teachers of the last years of Hackney Downs, formerly the Grocers’ Company’s School.

Review by EDWARD THOMAS, 1954-1961

See also review in the JC http://www.thejc.com/arts/books/68436/sad-history-hackney-downs-school

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