John Kemp

John Kemp became the 7th Headmaster in succession to Alec Williams (on the latter’s retirement in 1972) and held the post until his own retirement in 1989 having been at H.D.S. for 35 years. He had earlier succeeded Jimmy Metcalf as Head of English.

John Kemp with 5 alpha 1959-1960

Back Row L to R: David Barnett, Michael (Lord) Levy), Alan Moss, John Moss, Hyman Wallach, Norman Weinstock, Stanley Goron, Melvin Lewis
Middle Row L to R: George Visick, Victor Hustwitt, Robert Stanley, Jeffrey Lewis, Michael Lewis, Nathan Arwas, Michael Sandpearl, Jack Linder, Geoffrey Alderman
Front Row L to R: John Larter, John Mitchell, Tully Lowenthal, Allen Levy, John Kemp M.A., Michael Samuels, Stephen Rubenstein, Zach Harazi, Maurice Steinhart.


John Kemp in his time as Headmaster in one of the House Rooms


The Headmaster – John Kemp – in his office

The Voice of John Kemp


John Kemp: Headmaster of Hackney Downs School

As the last long-serving teacher and headmaster of Hackney Downs School, John Kemp saw its successful transition from grammar to comprehensive school and then fought a losing battle to hold the school together as the social composition of the area changed and fissured. In the six years following his retirement in 1989, after 35 years at the school, there were four heads or acting heads and seven key departmental heads left the school.

The school was closed in 1995 — to the bewilderment of an earlier generation of old boys — and Hackney Downs gained the title of the worst school in Britain. But back in the “white heat of technology” age of the 1960s, Kemp and his colleagues welcomed Harold Wilson’s Labour government policy to abolish the 11-plus exam, which divided all state pupils into bright grammar school pupils and dull secondary modern failures. While top grammar schools around the country voted to go independent rather than lose control over admissions, Hackney Downs saw the radical move as an opportunity to improve its service to the community. It voted to go comprehensive in 1969. Kemp was acutely aware of deprivation in the borough, especially after a fire at the school in 1963 led to temporary accommodation in a rundown, half-empty secondary modern school.

Appalled and embarrassed at the gulf between the two sets of pupils, idealistic staff became even more enthusiastic and optimistic about spreading the benefits of a successful school. They were also blessed with an exceptional crop of local lads. The London Borough of Hackney, created in 1963, covered an area favoured by Jewish families as a first stage in lifting themselves out of East End penury and overcrowding. The sons of these upwardly mobile families took easily to academic education and exam success.

For several decades from the 1930s, more than half the school (founded in 1876 as the Grocer’s Company’s School for practical education for local boys and known as Hackney Downs Grammar School after being taken over by London County Council in 1906) was Jewish. This was the situation when John Kemp joined the staff in 1954. The son of a post office manager in North London, he was a sensitive child, suffering from asthma and later rejected for National Service because of flat feet.

His love of reading was encouraged by his mother and he spent most of the war reading at home, down the hill from the communications posts of Alexandra Palace, a frequently targeted site. On one occasion a book was blown out of his hands by a bomb blast. Kemp passed his 11-plus to Trinity Grammar School in Wood Green, won a scholarship to King’s College London, gained a first in English, followed by a master’s, and went straight into teaching.

After a term at Minchenden Grammar School, Southgate, he joined the English department at Hackney Downs in 1954, where he stayed for the rest of his career. After the retirement of Jimmy Medcalfe, he became head of English in 1956, deputy head in 1971 and the school’s seventh headmaster in 1974, a rare case of internal promotion.

One of his first acts as head of English was to clear the school library of outdated texts so as to have space for modern authors and topics. Strongly egalitarian, while fully aware of the pivotal role of a grammar school in his own career, he was socially inclusive and culturally sensitive before the terms came into general use. He devoted time and thought to devising school assemblies. Jewish prayers were taken by Jewish prefects; Jewish and non-Jewish boys paired and alternated as head boy and deputy head boy. The experience served him well with a later generation of Muslim schoolchildren. He recruited women teachers to give a boys’ school a more balanced view of the outside world. The school was buzzing with activities and became a model for others to emulate and the media to enthuse about.

By the mid-1970s, however, the character of the pool from which the children came had changed dramatically. Jewish families moved out of Hackney and West Indian families moved in. At the same time the “banding” system, which had been deliberately slowed down to ease the transition to comprehensive through admitting a higher proportion of academically able pupils, came into full effect. The changeover to mixed ability intake now reflected the character of the borough, with all its inner-city problems of deprivation. Kemp saw this as a challenge and a call for the school to serve the black community. The school still played to its strengths. Vandalism was not yet a problem, and strong discipline at home translated into good manners at school.

An innovative Skills for Living course, which taught boys how to use science for cooking and home care, combined with an enterprise called Humanities, was much praised. Teachers showed them the outside world on visits to universities and the theatre and on nature trails in Epping Forest. The intake changed yet again in the 1980s with the immigrant surge from the Asian sub-continent, including the first large group of Muslims. Subsequent waves of immigrants from countries such as Vietnam, Turkey (including Kurds) and Somalia, brought in children who had to learn English before starting the curriculum. In 1990 27 different home languages were counted at the school.

Kemp and his staff still gave their all to impart a decent education. But the educational policies of central and local government were changing and the school found itself no longer occupying the high ground. Competition from reorganised local schools, the declining popularity of boys-only schools, the loss of the sixth form in the mid-1980s to a sixth-form college because of falling numbers of academic children, and the large number of problem children foisted on the school because of its high reputation for care, all contributed to a gradual erosion.

Internally there were cultural battles, as young boys born and initially bred outside Europe chafed under the authority of women teachers. Under the guise of acting as role models, some male teachers used the situation to undermine their female counterparts. In 1989, when Kemp retired, black teachers and parents formed action groups to maintain their momentum.

Within the teaching body, left-wing unionism was strong. Kemp accepted this as the natural flow of idealistic teachers’ energies and saw his job as striking a balance between their sometimes extreme demands and the requirements of school inspectors and education bodies. To the annoyance of some staff, he refused to give up his membership of the National Union of Teachers to join a “management” union of head teachers. Pay disputes between NUT staff and the Inner London Education Authority led to low-level industrial action, which exploded in 1987 when asbestos was discovered in school buildings. The school was forced into partial closure for nearly a year and left ILEA feeling embittered.

By the time ILEA was abolished in 1990 and Hackney Local Education Authority took over, outside bodies were starting to wash their hands of the school. Kemp watched in dismay in his retirement as buildings were left unrepaired, the entry level (Year 7) closed off in 1994 and the school placed under a special management committee, an educational association, by the Conservative Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, which led to its closure the following year. It was rebuilt and reopened in 2004 as Mossbourne Community Academy under Tony Blair’s city academy initiative.

Kemp used all his skills to hold the warring factions apart. But he could only watch the implosion after he left. He fully realised the difficulties the school faced and thought its future lay in co-education. It still had community pride and exam results were reasonable for the area. But he feared that the efforts of teachers to instil not only learning but kindness and concern for others, which meant so much to him, went unrecognised by the new educational hierarchy. For him the school’s closure was “the end of a marvellous place, not with a bang but a whimper. But it was marvellous once — and often — wasn’t it?”

Kemp’s first marriage ended in divorce. His second wife, Florise, a Chinese Mauritian who had come to the school to teach French and whom he married in 1967, died in 2008. He is survived by their daughter and son.

John Kemp, headmaster of Hackney Downs School 1974-89 , was born on April 4, 1929. He died on April 17, 2009, aged 80

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