City of London Academy – its past and present

Members of the Association will be interested in this short history, (by Sir Paul Curran of City, University of London),  of the various schools that have stood on the site of CoLAI.

If this little history brings back memories, perhaps you might also have some photos of the schools from days gone by?

“Good evening.  It is a great honour to be invited to present the keynote address at your awards evening, not least because I feel incredibly proud, that my university had a small part to play in COLAI’s spectacular journey from the most underperforming school in Islington to this year’s Ofsted rating of ‘Outstanding’.  The transformation is of huge credit to the drive and commitment of the senior team and the governing body but at tonight’s awards evening we are celebrating much more.  We are celebrating the latest chapter in the story of a 135-year-old school with an indomitable spirit and a character all of its own.

As many of you will know, COLAI’s location has not changed over the years but it has had four names, four sets of buildings and a long and distinguished history of dedicated teachers serving the needs of the young people of Islington.

Back in the early 1800s the  poet, William Blake, lamented that the ‘fields of Islington’ were being ‘builded over’.  Unfortunately, they were being ‘builded over’ by rows and rows of houses and the building of accompanying schools was to await the pioneering Compulsory Education Act of 1870.  Our Academy, then called the Queens Head Street School, was founded in 1884.  Twenty-one houses containing around 150 tenants were bought from the landlord and demolished and onto this tiny strip of land were built tall, tiered classrooms, each for around sixty students, with ferocious ventilation to minimise the risk of TB and with a precarious exercise space on the roof.  The school was to serve very local families, many of whom were displaced agricultural workers from the West Country and Italy.

It expanded rapidly, was rebuilt within the first ten years to accommodate 1,200 students, had the luxury of central heating installed in 1910 and then enjoyed a period of inter-war stability until all of this area was badly damaged during the Blitz.  [But fortunately, the students had by then been moved to Peterborough].

The population of London plummeted after the Second World War but the school was rebuilt on a site that had doubled in size as a result of the bombing.  It was renamed Tudor Secondary School and regrew again to 1,200 students on waves of immigration from the Caribbean, Africa, India and notably Bangladesh and Ireland.

By 1965 the size of the plot had doubled yet again to incorporate where we are tonight and extensive new buildings were opened to accommodate first, the post-war baby boomers and then, by the early 1970s, young people from the newly opened Packington Estate.  The school’s name was changed yet again, this time to Islington Green School and by the late 1970s had become a well-regarded comprehensive with some of the strongest examination results in Islington.  It felt youthful, vibrant, sassy and attracted iconoclastic teachers, one of whom was Alun Renshaw.  It was his connections that saw massed ranks of the school’s students sing the anti-establishment song of my generation on Pink Floyd’s album – The Wall.  Sadly by 1994 that youthful zeal had evaporated, examination results were declining and Tony and Cherie Blair made the fateful decision to send Euan elsewhere.  By 1997 the school was in special measures and it was only kept going by the collective professionalism of the staff.  A former pupil, soul singer Paloma Faith, recalls that it was:

Very, very rough. The police were there every day; there was a lot of violence. But the teachers were incredible. My tutor sold the Socialist Worker every Sunday in Hackney Central. They were very encouraging to me.  I was put in the Hackney Gazette because it was a failing school and I got all As at GCSE.” 

Six years and nine inspections later, it escaped from its lowly Ofsted rating but by then its reputation was damaged irrevocably and academy status was proposed with sponsorship by an educational charity.  This was not well-received by the good folk of Islington and the Academy that was to emerge in 2009 was co-sponsored by the City of London and ourselves, City, University of London.

I joined City in 2010 and it was clear that the Academy had a great building, great teachers and great students but was not thriving.  The City of London shared this view, much was changed and the rest, as they say, is history.

To mark the school’s two anniversaries of 135 years since foundation and ten years as an Academy and its achievement of being so highly rated by Ofsted the university presented the school with a gift.  It was the City, University of London and COLAI Anniversary Award for Outstanding Achievement and later tonight I will have great pleasure in awarding it for the very first time.

So, over the holiday season, when your relatives ask you, as they undoubtedly will, ‘ how’s school’, you can say, “it’s OK, this year my school celebrated its early Victorian origins and its decade as an Academy and took its place among this nation’s outstanding schools, so yes, it’s OK”.

Professor Sir Paul Curran, President, City, University of London