It's all about the children

In two decades as a headteacher in Birmingham, Sir David Winkley transformed the educational opportunities available to local children with his energy and vision. In the second of two extracts from his new book about his experiences at Grove primary, he warns against losing sight of the true focus of our education system - the pupils

Grove school had its fair share of pupils who got involved in vandalism and other anti-social behaviour. But a second's foolishness by two nine-year-olds was to have horrific and tragic consequences It was Bashir's idea to play at the back of the garage where the big tins are. They can be rolled and climbed on and drummed with sticks, which drives people mad so that occasionally they run out of their houses and eff and blind them away.

Bashir, Parvinder and a couple of older boys manage to roll one of the big barrels out of the yard into the street outside the school, where they sit on it and bang on it. Then one of them has the bright idea of setting it on fire. They throw a match into it, and it explodes.

Parvinder is standing too close. He may have been the one to throw the match. When the oily fire explodes volcanically, it showers him and sets his clothes alight, so that immediately he's totally on fire. Screaming, he runs towards his house like a burning firework, while the oil burns through his clothes to the skin. His mother, hearing him screaming, runs out and traps him in the folds of a carpet and rolls him on the floor to try and put the flames out. She could not have done more. Other neighbours run out of their houses, and ambulances, fire engines, the police are summoned.

Interviews with the police follow. The other shocked boys are checked over and eventually taken home. The man who owns the garage is asked why he left such volatile material so accessibly exposed. He argues, no doubt with some justification, that it was on his property at the back and that the boys had effectively broken in. But there were no locks.

Parvinder is rushed by ambulance to hospital and at once into intensive care. He has 90 per cent body burns and visitors are not allowed to see him. He dies a few days later. His teacher is traumatised along with the rest of the school. She points out in irony - absurdly beginning to blame herself - that the class had recently been going through a curriculum programme about safety in the home, and that a week or two back they'd even looked at the dangers of fire and the importance of not carrying matches, and so on. "Perhaps I put the idea into his head," she says, knowing, as we all knew, that this was not very likely.

I begin to think that I could have done more: I could have put Parvinder on a yellow home-card to check out his behaviour there, and given his mother more support. There were other children in the school I'd put on curfew: they had to be home and in bed by a certain time. I could have visited him more regularly and taken on more of the role of the absent father. The reality is that little Parvinder is dead. For all the hundreds of other children at school, there seems to be a great hole in their lives.

This is strange. It is as if Parvinder was all along by far the most significant person in the school. Now he is not there you notice every space he used to occupy; you remember every visit he made to you, every contact; his voice seems to be trying to say something; your mind fixes obsessively on the stamps (he was an avid collector), his work, his tiny neat handwriting. You don't know what to do with his books, his pens and his desk. The whole school is flooded with Parvinder and even though conversation may be about other things, everyone is thinking of him.

It reminds you how important a single soul is, and how a community is a group of uniquely important individuals. For me it was a reminder of risks and responsibilities. In my hands I have the lives of hundreds of children; how easy it is for one mistake to be made, one thing forgotten that may lead to something terrible happening. The children must above all be safe. But there is no safety in life.

Like many other heads, David Winkley realised that the focus on targets and an increasingly prescribed curriculum came at a cost It is easy to forget the children. A researcher into Ofsted's use of language found to his surprise how rarely the word "children" featured in their reports. There is a danger of children being seen as an afterthought in a system that is constantly expanding its plans to control schools, to keep everyone's nose to the grindstone. The fashion has been to focus heavily on discipline, on formalities. Children are no longer smacked, at least at school, but they are given rafts of targets and tests in regimes which are ever more intrusive. Children are universally expected to wear school uniform; homework even for the younger ones is demanded by the state; and I visit schools where children are told to remain silent for long periods of time in classrooms, and when moving about in corridors. They are far more likely to be suspended from school, their parents being expected to discipline them in circumstances that, 10 years earlier, would have been handled by the school alone. Since the mid-1980s there has been exponential growth, year on year, in exclusions and suspensions.

There are times when I feel that the world of schooling is closing around these children in a form of tyranny. It's becoming increasingly hard to maintain a multi-dimensional curriculum, to find adequate time for the arts, or for the kinds of calm activities that allow individual learning and space for them to think and play with ideas. A recent Ofsted inspection at a local school is damning about "circle time", an arrangement where children sit in a circle for a short time discussing their feelings openly.

"What has this," said the Ofsted team, "to do with the national curriculum? Why aren't they working?"

Children must at all costs achieve their levels in maths, science and language; and if other things get pushed out, so be it. But in the late 1990s schools began to report a reaction from youngsters against this regime, with an increasing incidence of despondency and disillusionment.

Truancy presented a particular challenge, but the drive to keep pupils in school could bring surprises The city centre can be a dangerous place for children out on their own during the day. Josette took herself off with a friend and was caught being picked up by men in the Birmingham Bullring Market area. She was lucky. The police had a patrol of plain-clothes women in the area, and she was brought back to the school. Her mother was sent for, and patrolled round the room waving her arms about and cursing the day that the girl was born. Josette, who was an attractive 11-year-old, stood and pouted, not looking her way. "You look at my eyes, child," her mother shouted. "You hear?" Josette stared down at her shoes. Then, with a turn on her heels, her mother picked up her bag and announced she was off. "I'll leave her to you," she said. "I wash my hands of her."

The school had a success with Josette. We counselled her. "You know how dangerous this behaviour is? You want to throw yourself away?" She was, I knew, in her way a proud child, a leader amongst her friends; and the key to getting her on our side was her exceptional ability at badminton. She was soon to become the under-13 city badminton champion. The day would also come when finding herself insecure in her secondary school - where there was no provision, can you believe it, for the younger children to play badminton - she would run away from that school back to us and turn up quietly and politely at our door. "I want to come back here," she said. To me she would listen. "You must go back," I replied, and it took me a long time to persuade her. I came to the conclusion that she just wanted someone, maybe anyone, to listen to her. In time she settled down, and as she got older she returned to her badminton with considerable success.

I had a white van, which the children dubbed the ice-cream van, and, equipped with a pair of powerful binoculars, I roamed the streets from time to time, surveying the park especially. My presence in the area became well known, and it was probably rather a joke. But at least I gained the reputation of being on the track of truants and if they were spotted they were in trouble.

There was one particularly troublesome boy who I was convinced was hiding in his house while his mother was out for the day. I went round in the white van with Edward (my deputy head) to Mrs Santer's house to see if Antony was lurking at home, or at least to tell his mum, if she was there, that her son was not in school. I parked outside the house and left Ed while I checked out the house. I knocked on the door and Mrs Santer was there, pleased to see me. "Oh goodness," she said, "do come inside."

There's soft music playing in the front room and the curtains are partly closed.

"Won't be a tick," she says and disappears; when she comes back I survey a slender, beaming women in a shortish black dress and high-heeled shoes coming towards me. She goes to the windows and draws the curtains, turning down the music and switching on the standard lamp. Only when she comes to canoodle on the sofa beside me, do I fully appreciate what is going on. I bristle, sit upright, stare at her and say, "Mrs Santer, you do know I'm the head of Antony's schoolI" "Oh my God," she says, squirming away from me and standing up. "Christ Almighty," and she puts her hand to her face laughing. "Fucking hell." She pauses, and apologises profusely. "Thought you were someone else," she says, putting the light back on and positively assaulting the record player to turn the sound off. Then she reopens the curtains, sits on another chair and says, "It's our Antony again, isn't it?"

Outside in the road, Ed observes the closing and opening of the curtains with astonishment, and when I finally come flustered out of the house he asks, slyly: "Was it OK?"

"Oh, come on," I say, driving away too fast.

The pressing nature of the poverty affecting many local families led David Winkley to draw his own conclusions on the links between affluence and achievement One day I go out to look up a missing child, and knock on the door. The terraced house has a small front garden where autumn leaves have blown in, covering the weeds.

The little girl I'm searching for answers the door and stares at me, obviously distressed.

"Are you OK?" I ask.

She says nothing, standing in the doorway.

"Is your mum there?"

She shakes her head.

"You're not on your own?"

She shakes her head again.

"Can I come inside?"

I hear movements. There's someone in there, and the girl makes no attempt to stop me as I cross the doorstep and step inside into the narrow corridor that runs directly through to a back room, beyond which there is a kitchen.

In the back room I hear scuffling. I go through and there's the girl's mother hiding under the carpet, making a huge lump, completely invisible. She is curled up on her knees, with her head in her hands. She moans in gasps and sighs, like a tiny child. After pulling the carpet back, I pick her up and help her into a chair, the only one in the room. The girl stands and watches as though struck dumb.

We wait around while an ambulance comes with a mental-health officer. I try to console the girl as her mother is taken away - her auntie is coming to take her off to another house, and they wouldn't let her go in the ambulance. I keep telling her that she'll be able to see her mother soon. She nods, still silent, not crying. Eventually her auntie arrives and takes the girl's hand and as everyone departs it's left to me to shut the door. It's a poor little home: I can see one large Indian-style rug, enough to cover you, a few knick-knacks, a picture and a photograph here and there, and an old TV set in the corner. I close the door quietly.

From 1980 to 1995 the gap between the rich and the poor widened. By the mid 1990s some 25 per cent of the population was living in relative poverty. The gap between high and low educational performance was similarly wider than in any other western nation, and poor academic results went with material poverty. Here in this Handsworth village were some of the poorest of that 25 per cent. One in eight of the entire population had been identified as being undernourished, roughly the same number that fail educationally. The links between educational performance and health are strong: the improved educational performance of children in the years just after the First World War was closely linked to a strong emphasis on improving health and nutrition. Average life expectancy in classy Sutton Coldfield, a few miles away, was at present six years higher than in this part of downtown Handsworth.

The fashionable argument was that people can be most effectively rescued from poverty by education. Successive governments went to great pains to point out that schools really do make a difference to a pupil's achievement, using evidence of the school effectiveness movement. It was argued that the problem lay not in poverty itself, but in poverty of access to good education. We certainly needed to raise expectations of children's performance in schools. But in my Twelve Angry Men mode I was increasingly worried by the oversimplification of an argument that led conveniently to the view that poverty was an issue that could be largely ignored. Not entirely of course, for even the most impassioned exponent of the education-can-solve-all-problems school had to admit that there was, in the end, some link between intake and academic achievement, and that there were undeniable differences between Handsworth and Sutton Coldfield.

Whatever was happening beyond the school gates, the culture of the school was tangible. Visitors often commented on its vibrancy and sense of fun, an atmosphere that surely had an impact on children's lives Eric Midwinter (an educationist) argued that at its best the good primary school is the most civilised of micro-societies. I watch the teachers in action and consider this. Civility is, indeed, one thing that distinguishes many of them, in the way they instantly reassure the children the moment they enter the classroom, or look at them, warm, calm, sympathetic, whilst all the time seeming to lead them on to show them something new: "come and look at this"; admiring: "that's really very good, isn't it"; suggesting:

"maybe you could have a go at thisI"; persuading the child to improve something he's done, modifying his first thoughts - taking risks: "come on, have a go"; asking questions: "is that right?"; making demands: "you can do better than that can't you?"; and every so often chastising: "that's not right, that's not good".

The conversations between the teachers such as Judith, Verna, Cheryl, Sue and the children flow backwards and forwards. Their classrooms have the buzz of novelty, of interesting things happening. Vivienne's absolute reliability is like a rock, founded, I think, on "old values". Her civility brings a kind of refined intelligence in relationships, an easiness of gesture, a subtlety of judgment.

On the other hand, a proportion of the children, many of whom seem to come into school academically disadvantaged, are showing persistent underachievement. Our own database has now gathered a vast amount of evidence of the children's performance term by term, and register what seems to be a law whereby the more able the child at the point of admission, the faster he or she will accelerate. Lower-ability children improve, but they improve more slowly. So, as the years go by, we see a remorseless widening of the gap between the most able and the least able, which becomes a chasm by the time the children are 11 years old. Roughly a quarter of them cause concern.

We can make a significant impact on some, but there remains a proportion whose learning strategies and achievements are poor. In this respect, ours is the story of many schools in the inner cities, not only of this country but of the US and the western world. Paris, I discover, is like London in having some 30 per cent of its pupils seriously underachieving in language and maths, although the French - unlike the current English government - do not advertise their problems, or blame the teachers.

David Winkley observes that teachers these days have a real sense of oppression, weighed down by government edicts. It is important, he says, to get these things into perspective, to think positively and to hold on to the good things Just occasionally there are events that astonish you. These rare moments accumulate. They linger, such moments, in the mind. There are times when you feel a sense of closure, as though you have gone through the door into the last room; something which, for once, appears to justify your existence.

When ex-pupils return to school, now grown up, the things they remember best are the plays, the fun, the great events, those moments of maximum emotional intensity. These seem to make them feel worthwhile; they are reference points for the next step forward in life. Such experiences can be partly planned but very often they come at you without warning. Yet happen they do - and you feel inspired as you stumble into them.

Sarbjit is a perfectly ordinary boy. He's been three years in the infants, four in the juniors, and is seen by everyone who has anything to do with him as quiet, courteous, pleasant and shy. Every year has its characters, the noisy, the smart, the badly behaved and attention-seeking; the teachers' helpers, the organisers, the popular, the charismatic, the sports stars. Sarbjit is none of these. He is by all accounts a boy whom nobody notices very much.

"Who?" says one teacher. "I'm not sure I can place himI" At the end of the year, the oldest children organise an event for the whole school. They write sketches, and they perform comedy, act, sing, recite, dance, fool about. Everyone gathers in the upper school hall; the curtains are drawn; the spotlights are on; the children sit on three sides of the room, and the performances take place in a central arena. The boys and girls with the most panache and public self-confidence run the show, and host it. They dress in wild clothes, ape television presenters, using microphones and putting on mid-Atlantic accents.

For the most part, the acts are a lot of fun, and get a great response from the audience, who clap every act with vigorous approval. They have something of the style, even occasionally the skill, of professionals. The children often seem much older than they really are whilst performing. Act follows act, and the audience continues to clap and cheer.

Then all of a sudden Candice, the star presenter, all confidence and adrenalin, announces the next act in a good, clear speaking voice: Sarbjit - to dance. Who? Some of the children look around, and then a slender figure emerges dressed in cut-off trousers and a light-blue silk shirt, his black hair gleaming under the lights. The hall goes quiet. Sarbjit stands still in the very centre of the room. The spotlight fixes on him, pins him to the floor. Someone puts a Michael Jackson record on. Hundreds of children snap their fingers and hum along with the tune, and Sarbjit starts to move.

It's not long before everyone goes quiet. Sarbjit is moving into action, his body beginning to sway elegantly, his feet sliding, his torso upright, and an extraordinary new persona, a brilliant butterfly, emerges before our eyes. His dance, slow at first, now speeds up, showing incredibly agility - it is a perfect Michael Jackson imitation, but with an authority all of his own. His body bends to the rhythms and he moves like a graceful master, an Astaire, across the centre of the floor, dancing with a glittering brilliance that takes the breath away. All at once he is Michael Jackson - with the hypnotic professionalism of a natural performer.

The audience's attention is spinning along with him; the children gathered round the edges of the room start to clap and cheer in astonishment. He twirls like a ballerina, on one foot, on one hand, extending his range moment by moment to a dazzling climax, poised and synchronised exactly with the music, and stopping precisely on time. There's a breathless pause and he pulls himself up straight, standing quite still, feet together, smiling gently at the flabbergasted audience. Then he takes his bow, to a chorus of cheers, and lowering his head very slowly, even arrogantly, like a great artist at the end of a performance - a gentle, almost disdainful smile on his lips, which I have occasionally witnessed in great performers, who convey a curious sense of not needing any applause at all, simply existing in some distant and slightly superior world of their own.

We had witnessed something special. The admiration was tangible. Like everyone else who was there, of every age, I felt elated, as if I was dancing on air. It was a life-enhancing performance. Afterwards Sarbjit quietly sat down. No one knew he could dance like this - could dance at all. He was not a member of the dance or drama club; he had never danced at school before. Where had he learned to dance?

The following day Sarbjit, along with the other performers, left the school.

Sir David Winkley is president of the National Primary Trust, which he founded in 1987. In 1998, he became the first primary head to be knighted. Handsworth Revolution: the odyssey of a school is published by Giles de la Mare, pound;14.99. TESreaders can buy a copy for pound;13.99 direct from Macmillan Distribution. Tel: 01256 302 692 and quote 'TES offer'

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