STAFF AND former pupils are demanding to know whether New Labour education ministers were involved in the decision to sweep aside an inspectors’ report and fail Islington Green school in 1997.
Islington Green is the popular north London comprehensive that Blair snubbed for his own children.
Chris Woodhead, a now-discredited former chief inspector of schools for Ofsted, condemned Islington Green as a ‘failing school’ after ignoring the judgement of senior inspectors.
Barry Jones, one of the school’s inspectors, challenged Woodhead in a letter in November 1997 to justify his decision to overturn the unanimous ruling of inspectors that Islington Green was not a failing school. Jones’ letter was only released last week under the Freedom of Information Act.
The news that the school had failed an initial Ofsted report was announced the day after New Labour’s first election victory.
Pupils, parents and staff met the news with shock and quickly set up a campaign to defend the school.
Islington Green had only just been named in a list of 100 top improving schools in Britain and had the second best exam results in the London borough.
Campaigners were refused access to the second report, which was compiled by a follow-up squad of inspectors from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMI).
These inspectors were widely regarded as less politically motivated than Ofsted.
Ken Muller, Islington Green’s NUT teachers’ union rep, had always believed that the decision to fail the school was a political one. He applied for information relating to the decision on 1 January 2005 – the day the Freedom of Information Act came into force.
Ken Muller told Socialist Worker, ‘Islington Green was seen by many in education as a model of a progressive, multi-cultural, thriving inner city comprehensive. Its failure gave the green light for New Labour’s assault on such schools and seemed to justify Blair’s decision to send his son to the selective London Oratory, eight miles away.
‘Within two weeks of failing Islington Green, Stephen Byers and David Blunkett began the policy of naming and shaming so called failing schools. They were determined to be seen to be tough on education. Islington Green’s Ofsted ended the day after New Labour’s election victory, but our celebratory champagne bottles remained unopened at the end of school that Friday afternoon.
‘To have accepted the second inspection overturning such a high profile Ofsted decision so soon after this policy began would have set back the naming and shaming policy. It would also have shown that a ‘bog standard’ comprehensive, a term of abuse coined by Peter Hyman, would have been good enough for Blair’s kids. Hyman was an adviser to Blair, who has written a book about the school after working there for a year.’
As with many other schools, Ofsted’s decision had a devastating impact on Islington Green. Many staff left within weeks of the report and some stopped teaching altogether.
Peter Hughes was a head of year who took early retirement two months after the Ofsted report.
He says, ‘No one could believe how negative they were about the school. There was a good spirit in the school and a feeling that things were on the up. Results had gone up by 21 percent in three years and we had gone from accepting 150 pupils each year up to 210 because of the school’s growing popularity.
‘Ofsted did nothing to support our achievements and everything to demoralise the people associated with the school. They drove people out.’
Wendy Pettifor’s daughter was a pupil at the school at the time. She says, ‘Many parents were very angry at the report. Some excellent teachers got demoralised and in the years following the Ofsted there was a very high staff turnover.
‘One of the strengths of the school had always been that it got a genuine comprehensive intake. The inspection deterred many parents from sending their children to the school and limited the racial and social mix of the school.’
Sheila McGregor, who was a teacher-governor at Islington Green in 1997, says, ‘Blair was determined to destroy schools like Islington Green which showed middle class parents that comprehensive education did work.
‘Once the straitjacket of endless inspections was imposed, the end of the progressive and creative curriculum that had existed led many previously loyal parents to abandon the school.’
A whole generation of pupils had their education severely disrupted by the needless wrecking of the school’s achievements. There are now only three staff left at the school who were teaching there at the time of the Ofsted report.
Ken Muller says, ‘We want answers as to why Woodhead was allowed to do this to our school and how far New Labour ministers were involved in the decision. A group of parents, staff and former staff have written to Ruth Kelly, the education minister, to demand the overturning of the original Ofsted report.
‘We haven’t stopped fighting for our school. Today, we are campaigning against attempts to make it a city academy under New Labour’s plans for schools in deprived areas. This means selling it off to merchant bankers and hedge fund speculators. We are told by Labour that turning our school into a city academy will bring us a ‘wealth of experience’ from business people.
‘Handing over £28 million to them in return for a mere £2 million investment on their part would only increase their wealth for an experience we don’t want.
‘The letter from the HMI to Chris Woodhead confirms what I knew all along – they were determined to do down comprehensive education even at the cost of the futures of hundreds of children.’
THE IMPACT of Chris Woodhead’s refusal to accept the findings of the second inspection was that the school suffered a loss of stability. Many pupils felt that they were labelled as failures.
Brendan Kelly started as a pupil at the school in 1998. He says, ‘Even now when I tell people I went to Islington Green, they say that it must have been a rough school. The label ‘failure’ was always a nonsense but it made things tough for students and staff. I had no permanent French teacher for the whole of year eight and totally lost interest in a subject I’d loved in year seven.
‘I felt sorry for many of the teachers at the school – they never got enough credit for the hard work they did. Endless inspections disrupted my education and put the whole school on edge the whole time. This needn’t have happened if Woodhead hadn’t overturned the HMI’s report.’