Poignantly, on May 1 this year, nearly 20 old boys of Hackney Downs school, or Grocers, as it was known, had a reunion lunch in an Edgware restaurant. They had enrolled in August 1947, which, as Geoffrey Alderman points out in his book, Hackney Downs 1976-1995, The Life and Death of a School (The Clove Club, £14), was one of its “Golden Years”.
The school was founded by the Grocers Company to offer education to children of Hackney, a suburb of London, which changed at the beginning of the 20th century from a leafy suburb to an area in which poor, working-class people, mostly Jewish immigrants from the East End, lived.
The school thrived and grew between 1905 until the 1960s to become one of country’s leading grammar Schools with a large list of distinguished alumni, including the playwright Harold Pinter.
While Alderman (himself a former pupil) describes the school’s birth well enough, it is, ironically, when he deals with its death that the book really comes alive. As he states in his preface, “in my considered view… the school was murdered.”
So who were the murderers? “Individuals and groups with their own preoccupations, prejudices and agendas.”
The school went comprehensive in 1968 and, because of the changing demographic pattern in Hackney, the intake by 1976 changed dramatically. The decline in the child population in Hackney in the ’80s meant that places had to be filled with pupils with learning and behavioural difficulties.
The school became a political football kicked around by ILEA, the GLC, Hackney Council and, finally, by John Major’s government, who made of Hackney Downs a sacrificial lamb, closing it down on December 31, 1995. It is a sad tale, enthrallingly told by Professor Alderman.