Pauline Pearce, who rocketed to fame as the ‘Hackney Heroine’ during last summer’s riots, is to join the advisory group for a Hackney free school.
As EastLondonLines reported in November the free school’s steering committee was initially established by a Cambridge educated corporate finance advisor, a commercial and financial lawyer and a violinist.
Pearce has been inundated with requests from charities and organisations since she rocketed into the public eye last summer, after being filmed bravely telling rioters that she was “ashamed to be a Hackney person”.
Pearce says she is sincerely committed the new secondary school, and to improving Hackney, the borough she “cares about so much”. She said she was “chuffed to bits” to be asked to have a role in its development.
“At last someone wants to use me for something, to get my hands dirty and get involved.
“They wanted me to get more ethnic minorities involved, and explain what the benefits are. So I thought, yeah I’ll go with it, have a go, and see if I can make a difference.
“If there’s something I’m not happy with then I’ll let them know” she says. “Not in a rude way, but if it doesn’t go the way I think it’s going then I’m withdrawing – it’s as simple as that.”
Andreas Weseman, a corporate finance advisor and a resident of Dalston, is leading the application for the new school, named the Hackney New School. He describes his vision for the institution: “All the schools in Hackney have high levels of oversubscription. We want to create an outstanding school in a deprived area.”
The application for the school will be assessed by the Department of Education by the end of February. If approved it could be open by September 2013, starting out with a Year 7 group of 100 children. They say they are aiming to have 45 to 50 per cent of their students eligible for free school meals.
A 2009 statistic shows 40 per cent of secondary school pupils in the borough were eligible for free school meals.
However there has been criticism. Labour MP Meg Hilliers has already voiced concern. Mark Lushington, from the National Union of Teachers told local blog Loving Dalston: “It looks like a private school at the taxpayers’ expense. It is a free school for the Hackney middle class. It’s Hogwarts by any other means, a Michael Gove wet dream.”
Wesemann is undeterred by these comments: “I would love to talk to the NUT, a medieval organisation, and find out why they think what they think about free schools.
“I don’t care if white middle classes are against it, they can go to their own schools. If some post-modernist socialist is against it, I don’t care.
“We’ve been working very hard to have a composition in our group that reflects the pupil population demographic. We’re trying to reach the bottom 10 per cent. They don’t read the Times, or have access to computers We need to use whatever mechanisms are necessary.”
It hasn’t gone unnoticed in the past that certain free schools have been media savvy. Toby Young, a journalist, was quick off the mark – he understood that to be the first free school to sign up after Michael Gove’s new legislation would be a press coup like no other. In an interview with the Guardian in April 2011 he admitted his ‘celebrity’ status helped in “attracting teachers and applicants”.
Then in October Helen Mirren gave her “full support” to Wapping High School, also in east London.
Pearce realises that Hackney New School will be using her to drum up publicity. She told EastLondonLines: “I’m not naïve, a lot of people probably think I’m a bit dumb and a bit silly but I’m not. Quite a few people have asked me to join certain things they’re doing and of course it’s riding off the profile I have.
“But if it’s for something good then that’s what I’m here for and that’s what I care about. I truly hope they’re doing it for the right reasons and I truly hope I find a role in the school that I’m comfortable with.”
Young’s West London Free School received a lot of criticism for having compulsory Latin lessons up to the age of 14 – a decision which led many to describe his school as “elitist”.
Hackney New School has a similar curriculum. The school’s website states Latin and Greek will be taught to all pupils, although Wesemann says they think may leave out Greek.
Asked whether he thought these subjects were pandering to a private school demographic, he defended the decision.
“There are many things that are done in private schools which are very good. If you look at education outcomes of private schools – they are generally outstanding. Performance of state sector is average.”
Pearce, however, is of a different view. She was taught Latin at Hitchin Girls grammar school in Hertfordshire which she attended as girl, but says she “didn’t do very well”.
“I think it should be an optional thing. Personally, I think Latin maybe not. I wish I learnt more languages as a child, but I’m not so sure about Latin!”
But apart from cutting Latin lessons, what else does Pearce want the school to focus on?
“It’s always the brightest brick in the block that gets pushed so much more, but the child sitting at the back that might not be quite so bright, those are the ones that I’m concerned about”
“People will have their opinions on what they feel is right or wrong, but I feel that the school wants to integrate, as opposed to the other way round – otherwise they’ve got the wrong person on board!”