John Bald, an independent education consultant, a blogger and a Conservative on this remarkable Hackney success story

Mossbourne Community Academy occupies the site of the former Hackney Downs school, often seen as the worst school in Britain, and which wrote its own obituary as The School That Dared To Fight.  When it closed in 1995, Hackney Downs had a catastrophic attendance rate (among staff as well as pupils) and was a violent, nasty place, showing all of the characteristics condemned by the brave and excellent Katharine Birbalsingh.  Hackney Downs, like Miss Birbalsingh’s Ordinary School, tried to accommodate the negative attitudes of a minority of pupils and parents, and was destroyed by them. 

Sir Michael Wilshaw’s approach, developed at Saint Bonaventure’s School has been to have no truck with them at all.  A child who is rude to a teacher will go home at 6.00 that evening.  If he or she persists, there are detentions on Saturday morning (as there are in France).  Similar penalties apply to dropping litter, not wearing uniform properly and not doing homework.  In return, children receive teaching and work that is carefully matched to their learning needs, with little mixed ability teaching, careful and regularly targeted assessment, and positive feedback for success. 

The results are spectacular, and not just in terms of the New Labour mantra of 5 A*-C grades. Mossbourne pupils achieve A* grades in unprecedented quantities – 55 A* out of 60 entries in Spanish and German, for example – and had 10 Cambridge places this year, as well as 31 at Russell Group universities. The languages result is not only brilliant, but groundbreaking – to have such success in one school at A* shows clearly that languages are not being taught properly across the country, of which more in a later posting.

Sir Michael has spoken about his approach, and its basis in his Catholic faith, in The Guardian here and it is fair to see it in the context of the Catholic contribution to education that was one of the main achievements of the late Cardinal Hume. Catholic schools were also instrumental in getting phonics back in to reading teaching (St Clare’s, Birmingham and Clacton).

There is a film of the school’s work here.  Sir Michael’s key point is that “people see us as a strict school. What we are is highly structured”. He is not, as he said in The Guardian, “a dinosaur”, and only up to a point a traditionalist. His achievement has been to see clearly the resources, and most crucially the teaching resources, at his disposal, and make maximum use of them. In most schools I know,  teachers work much harder than pupils – this has become a British disease. 

In Mossbourne, everybody works as hard as he or she can, with no excuses. The staff do not have limited hours in their contracts, and many are in school by seven in the morning. It is a community with a shared purpose, and the pupils and parents are part of it – everyone has extended courses, including Saturday courses, and the sports available include rowing.

Can other schools do the same? Some critics claim Mossbourne is selective, but it isn’t. The one thing parents have to do is to sign up to the disciplinary system, which includes the no-notice detentions that the government has now, crucially, made available to all schools. If parents have not agreed to it, there may well be a fight on some headteachers’ hands, and they may not have the stomach for it.

Not every headteacher is Sir Michael, and we have too many like the pusillanimous New Labour placeperson who sacked Katharine Birbalsingh. If so, governors must stiffen their resolve, and heads need to make sure that the system is applied fairly. The Ark academies, of which Sir Michael is Director of Education, are beginning to have success in extending the approach beyond Mossbourne, but this school remains the pathfinder. The video linked to above, is a model of succinctness and I highly recommend it.