Tom Brooke: Hackney Learning Trust

It is safe to say that few legal chiefs hold their team’s Christmas party at renowned London clubbing night DTPM, but Tom Brooke is one of them. Still, the head of law at the Hackney Learning Trust is used to doing things a little differently.

One of just three such setups in the country, the Hackney Learning Trust is the body set up to take over all of the London borough’s schools from the local education authority (LEA) in 2003 in a bid to rescue Hackney’s long-failing schools.

Independent from the council, the trust is revolutionary in design. Registered at Companies House, the trust is funded by local government grants under contract, yet pays corporation tax. But it has no shareholders, not even the council, and is proud of its independence.

“Because we had a fresh start and a radical change we had the ability to be more creative and more dynamic, and our decision-making mechanisms are faster and more effective,” says Brooke. “We’re not tied into the same cycle of scrutiny and so on that the councils are; we have a ‘can do’ ethos.”

All of the trust’s functions are statutory ones and Brooke explains that the legal team’s objective is a simple one: to let the trust get on with it.

“Even a relatively small legal issue can obstruct and distract in a major way – even a minor employment issue or a photocopier contract,” he says. “We see our role as trying to make sure the team delivering education services have the support they need to do their jobs, without being held back by legal issues.”

Part of what this entails is making sure that statutory processes have been followed properly to ensure judicial reviews come down in the trust’s favour. These range from challenges to school exclusions made by the excluded and their families, through to challenges by disappointed families arising from the high competition for places in certain schools.

Represented by 11KBW counsel Holly Stout, the trust also recently won a judicial review after it was alleged that the trust had not provided enough places for special needs children in the borough.

Other major challenges include the restructuring of secondary education to adjust to New Labour’s academies programme and achieving a goal of 80 per cent of children staying within the borough for their secondary education.

In all this, Brooke says that the trust’s unique structure is key to its success. “We’re able to work in a less prescribed way [than in an LEA] and legal services is working toward being more and more proactive,” he says. “Raising educational standards is an undeniably good thing and we have a highly motivated team to get that done.”

Following the Children’s Act 2004, the trust faces new ‘joint area inspections’ covering not only education, but also social care and health. The trust was last inspected in spring 2005 and was graded ‘good’ – the second-best of the four grades possible and something that was inconceivable in the dark days shortly before the trust began operations.

Slammed in inspection after inspection, morale had hit rock-bottom in the final days of the LEA, Brooke says, and the authority suffered high staff turnover as employees fled for less demoralising jobs. The trust has revolutionised the culture, he says – although he admits that “selling the idea [to the LEA staff] was something [the trust] had to do”, and that “obviously, some people moved on”.

Brooke’s link to education is a family one: his father was a professor of English at the University of East Anglia and his mother taught the subject at secondary school.

Prior to joining the trust, Brooke also spent six years as principal in education and employment at the London Borough of Wandsworth. “Wandsworth has a strong ethos and a powerful way of working, but was a bit monolithic,” he says. “So it was exciting coming to an organisation that was open to change.

“But whatever I thought this job was going to be at the end of 2003, this wasn’t it.”

Tom Brooke
Head of law and company secretary
Hackney Learning Trust

Organisation: Hackney Learning Trust
Sector: Education
Turnover: £150m

Employees: 750
Legal capability: Four lawyers, one paralegal
Head of law and company secretary: Tom Brooke (formerly Tom Lewis-Brooke)
Reporting to: Assistant director of policy, planning and performance Simon Bird

Main law firms: Freeth Cartwright, Walker Morris
Tom Brooke’s CV

1981 – English degree at Queen Mary College, University of London;
1985 – CPE and solicitors’ finals at College of Law
Work history:
1987 – joined Rubenstein Callingham (now part of Manches);
1990 – assistant in housing and social services, London Borough of Wandsworth;
1997 – education and employment principal, Wandsworth;
2003 – head of law and company secretary, Hackney Learning Trust