In the 1990s a new educational phenomenon appeared in Britain. This was the failing school, a demonized institution whose head, teachers and governors were deemed to be personally responsible for the educational underperformance of its pupils. Failing schools were castigated for failing whole communities, particularly in disadvantaged areas where 'pupils have only a slim chance of receiving challenging and rewarding teaching throughout their educational career' (OFSTED, 1993, p. 43), and for weakening the whole educational structure (Barber, 1996, p. 132). Failing schools were the subject of negative and derisory media coverage, with journalists competing to discover 'the worst school in Britain' (Brace, 1994)-an accolade seemingly handed out to a different school every few months in the mid-1990s. Politicians from major parties competed to demonstrate their 'zero tolerance of school underperformance' (Blair, 1996, p. 12), and a culture of shame and blame reached a high point in May 1997 when 18 out of some 300 underperforming schools were singled out for public naming (MacCleod, 1997).
This chapter describes the life and death of Hackney Downs School in East London, the first (and perhaps only) school to be designated as irretrievably failing and closed in December 1995 on the advice of an Educational Association. 1 The closure was long-drawn out and bitterly contested, and as O'Connor, Hales, Davies and Tomlinson have pointed out (1998), 'very many of those involved still feel a burning sense of injustice at what happened at Hackney Downs in 1995'. The story illustrates the nonsense of regarding individual schools as operating as though divorced from historical, social, economic and political contexts, from the consequences of national and local policies and decisions, and from personal agendas.
The failing school is the obverse of the effective school. School effectiveness researchers, in the 1970s and 1980s, were concerned to identify the characteristics of effective schools and made their findings available to practitioners to improve schools. The major school effectiveness studies in the UK (Rutter et al., 1979; Reynolds,