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Who is to blame for the failure of Downhills School?

Justin Hinchcliffe, Deputy Chairman, Tottenham Conservatives, says Michael Gove is right to intervene in Downhills School but it was not only the headmaster responsible

I live less than half a mile from Downhills’ Primary School and my younger brother was briefly a pupil there. So I find the latest OFSTED inspection result sad, but not surprising. (The school has been placed in ‘Special Measures’ and the headteacher, Mr Leslie Church, has wisely decided to resign).

In the face of a concerted NUT/Guardianista campaign against him, Michael Gove’s decision to take the politics out of the Downhills decision and leave it to OFSTED showed excellent judgement. The re-inspection could have gone either way. After all, the previous OFSTED report had been cited in support by both Gove AND his opponents. On the one hand, it said the school was failing in terms of reaching basic targets in English and Maths, but it also declared that it ‘expected the school to improve’. This latter point was the ‘trump card’ of the anti-academy brigade: ‘If you are expecting improvement anyway, why intercede?’ But recent months have seen the school’s leadership team shift its focus away from addressing the failings identified by OFSTED  and onto a belligerent campaign against academy schools and the coalition government generally. Against that backdrop, an even worse OFSTED report this time was perhaps predictable.

Poor Mr Church, the headteacher who has now stood down, really didn’t stand much of a chance. Go along with academy status and feel the combined wrath of your local authority, your local MP, the head of the NUT, and assorted SWP entryists and hangers-on. Oppose academy status and be feted by the same.  But even amongst the local Left, there was always some ambivalence on the issue:  Haringey Council cabinet member for schools Cllr. Lorna Reith, (a Communist candidate in the 1989 Euro elections for London North), refused to go on the SWP-supported demo against academy status--only five of 34 Labour councillors did.

But how unjust it would be if Mr Church alone paid the price for this deeply misjudged, ideological campaign. Should David Lammy, Tottenham’s MP also be held to account? After all, if was his intervention which turned Downhills into a national cause celebre for the leftwing educational establishment. This New Labour clone and deeply unpopular constituency MP, was an ineffectual minister in the last government, but remains very ambitious. (How he must smart when he sees the younger, more handsome and talented Chuka Umunna invited so often into TV studios.)  

Lammy undeniably played a blinder after the 2011 riots.  But the populist ‘law and order’ stance he adopted then perhaps positioned him too far to the right to be comfortable? Hijacking the Downhills bandwagon was the perfect way for him to curry favour with the Labour Left, amongst whom he had long been deeply unpopular.  This leftward tacking, has since been followed by another tack to the right when he spoke out recently in favour of smacking. And so Lammy rides the political see-saw: forever trying to adopt balanced positions to appeal to both Left and Right but be seen as the hostage of neither. Mr Church’s career is a small price to pay for Mr Lammy’s ambition.

Meanwhile someone has to put Downhills back together again. Rebuild morale and raise standards to an acceptable level. It seems unlikely that the existing governing body are fit to play a part in this. You would think the latest OFSTED report would have occasioned a period of calm reflection—contrition even. But no: we just got more of the shrill, strident complaints and demands that got them into this mess. The school's poor standards are not new - it had been placed in special measures before. (In fact, Haringey Council was stripped of control of all its schools for several years by the last Labour government, so poor a custodian of  children’s education was it deemed to be by a Labour education secretary).  

The governing body of the school always promised 'Jam tomorrow - by insisting things would get better, but it was always too little, too late. In the meantime, 40+% of pupils at Downhills were leaving Y6 unable to grasp the basics in literacy and numeracy. Perhaps this should come as no surprise when you consider that the local Labour Party has stuffed governing bodies with their members for decades, members who are supine before the instructions of the Labour-led authority. In a healthy local authority, there can be a useful creative tension/ balance of powers between the council and governing bodies. But, in a toxic borough like Haringey it all goes wrong—as so many things do in this borough. Downhills needs fresh people and fresh ideas. Michael Gove must now act quickly to put them in place.


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