Road to Respect

Sir David Winkley was appointed head of Grove school - a struggling primary in the heart of Birmingham - in 1974. Like most of Britain's inner cities, the area was beset by raging unemployment, crime and racism. Twenty-three years later, when he left his post, 'The Times' described his school as 'the best in Britain'. In the first of two extracts from a new book about his experiences at Grove, Sir David begins the story of an extraordinary transformation

The Grove school, in Handsworth, had around 60 per cent Afro-Caribbean and 35 per cent Asian pupils when David Winkley was hired. One summer term in the early Eighties, staff take the older pupils to London for the day As we are setting off walking toward the Planetarium, the children chattering away in their ragged crocodiles, and impeccably behaved, a man comes from the opposite direction and spits in the face of one of the little girls, calling her - and presumably by implication her friends - "black shit".

The children are stunned by this assault. Edward (the deputy head), is within earshot, and in front of all the children he reacts instinctively, unprepared (who would be prepared for such a thing?) but furious. He confronts the man head on, and all the children stop.

"You racist bastard," says Ed, grabbing the man's shoulder and pausing as if to consider whether to punch his head in. The guy's young and looks bigger than Ed but he is by now shocked himself, not expecting this reaction out of the blue; and sensing that he might get thumped, he takes a step back and mutters some pathetic apology.

"Not to me," says Ed. "To that girl."

The guy eyes the girl, mumbles something inaudible and walks swiftly away. The children stand watching, and spontaneously clap.

Later the same term term, the Grove netball team visits "a much more middle-class school" for a match What starts the chanting is impossible to say. But it starts soon enough when our team - who are mostly black girls - are winning.

"Black rubbish", comes the first whisper, like smoke in the wind. It catches the adults by surprise, momentarily freezing the brain as something shocking invariably does. But "black rubbish" it definitely is and, now in the open, it begins to flare up as if caught on the breeze, and carried round the square from child to child, until this dense crop of polished pink and white young faces, with their immaculate school uniforms, a sign of order and discipline and good homes, are chanting in unison: "Black roo-bish, black roo-bish."

A flow of blood runs from my feet into my head. What I can't understand is why the teachers at the host school seem not to have noticed, as though nothing is happening - or if something is happening, it's a bit of a joke and of no importance. But I feel, as the black children must have felt, an accumulating sense of anger.

By now Ann (a Grove teacher) has heard the chanting. She glances over her shoulder at me and is decisive as ever. She stops the game and the ball goes rolling away whilst the girls stand still, bemused. She marches off the court announcing: "That's enough girls." Then she goes up to the games teacher and protests.

The reaction is one of puzzlement. Other teachers and a few parents gather round. But by now my attention is focused on another part of the playground where a group of Grove boys have been surrounded by two or three dozen children. Among the boys is one that I know all too well. It is clear the situation is getting out of hand. I had guessed Leroy would soon be hitting someone. He is big and has a temper, and now he has every excuse for flaring up. I plunge in and tell the boys that they've got to go home and make no trouble on the way, not so much as a sound, or I'm going to be after them tomorrow.

"You understand?"

There's silence now. The girls are gathering round Ann, who's packing up the equipment. The cars are ready to take them back. The parents are muttering, one or two of them confused and embarrassed. I have to go to my car as I'm going to shuttle some of the girls home.

But then after the cars have gone a man appears. He is one of the parents, and he has an enormous pale Alsatian dog with which he confronts the four or five boys and a couple of girls heading home.

"Which one hit my daughter?" he's yelling.

The dog is snarling.

"The one that pushed my daughter is dead," he screams.

The boys start to run, with the dog barking and straining at the leash.

"Fucking black bastards, shit, fuck you, you fucking come down here again, he'll rip your guts outI" The girls are terrified, and one bursts into tears. The boys are silenced, stunned at the attack. It's only later that I learn that the parent wasn't joking: he admitted that his dog had been trained to "go for the blacks", and keep them off his territory.

Later, of course, the head of the school, who had not been there at the match, rings me to apologise: action would be taken, he says. For sure. But the damage has been done.

In an election campaign the same year, the National Front insist on holding a meeting at the school, which attracts protesters and is broken up by police We turn up the next day to survey the debris. The hall is badly smashed about. Windows are broken, and glass is still everywhere, although the caretaker has been working overtime to clear the place up. Parts of the children's display work is in tatters; there are ugly holes in the walls as though someone's been hitting the plaster with hammers; the piano has a swastika engraved on it with a knife.

The children come to school as usual to witness their broken and battered building, and they're understandably subdued. I suspect that, like the rest of us, they feel that they have themselves been in some way abused. In assembly I express my dismay and apologise to the children, who can scarcely be expected to understand the politics behind all this, and I promise them that the hall will be put right soon. They stare silently at me. Are they convinced? It is at such moments that you learn the importance of trust, the feeling that we and they are in the same boat, on the same side, and full of the same indignation.

In 1985, the streets around the school erupt in violence again The morning after the Handsworth Festival, an Asian shopkeeper is stabbed outside the bank in Villa Road. Late that afternoon a police officer gives a parking ticket to a black driver: the vehicle is untaxed and the driver is arrested on suspicion of being unqualified. More police arrive and accusations reach the street lads. A fight starts. Eleven officers are reported injured; seven police vehicles are damaged, two arrests are made. It's getting out of hand. By 7.40 that evening Villa Cross Hall is on fire and fire-officers are warned by the boys not to tackle the blaze. Hundreds of police are drafted in, wide-scale looting starts, the whole area is cordoned off, more buildings are ablaze, and the Indian man who runs the post office is killed inside his own shop. News of a full-scale riot, one of the worst in British history, spreads rapidly across the world press.

The following morning Gilroy, our excellent new deputy head - Edward having recently been appointed head of his own school - arrives at the school to be greeted by a crowd of excited children.

"Sir, sir, saw you on TV."

Gilroy looks puzzled.

"How d'you mean?"

"In the riots."

"What? Say again?"

"We saw you there, in the riots."

Lots of the children have seen him, which causes Gil a problem, since he was not there.

It's a stroke of luck that someone has a video of last night's Central News, and, sure enough, there's a brief clip of Gilroy in a tracksuit, running, that has been cut into other scenes of the police barricades and the general mayhem. It's a film of him jogging through Handsworth Park some weeks earlier, taken presumably (for what reason no one knew) with a long-distance lens by a camera team. Because the police cordon was so tight, it had proved impossible for the teams to get close enough to film yesterday and so Central TV had obviously incorporated old cuttings into its early-evening broadcast.

We ring Central TV, who hotly deny the accusation of broadcasting phoney evidence, until we face them with the video. The city solicitor becomes involvedI If Gilroy had persisted, maybe taking it to the Independent Broadcasting Authority or to court, he might well have obtained damages. As it is, they're lucky that they're dealing with such an amiable man, and in the end he accepts an apology from CentralI In any case, the children see his TV appearance as an achievement.

In the late 1980s the Grove began to attract interest for its work on curriculum structure, which pre-empted national developments By now we had what was effectively a national curriculum of our ownI We had had regular long morning maths and language sessions for many years I There was now a convincing rhythm to the day, the week, the term and the year, a planned cyclical shape to the children's learning. But it was only a beginning. The important question was how well the "stories", the planned narratives that lay at the core of the curriculum, were made to unfold in the classroom. How good was the teaching? How strong were the components at year-group level?

Our first project in history, for example, was for the seven-year-olds, with a focus on palaeontology, the beginning of things, the world as it was before the arrival of man, plus a great deal about the early development of life, leading up to stone-age man.

There was writing, film, art, drawing, and there were many visits to the science museums. Was the success of this component to be judged by the enthusiasm of the children? Was it to be found in the historical quality of their work as opposed to its literary or artistic character? Or in the sheer razzmatazz of the "component", the fact that the children enjoyed it? What was the rationale for choosing it for seven-year-olds as opposed to the thousand and one other things that might have constituted the history curriculum? Could we find a more appropriate and relevant project for this age group?

To assess that and other aspects of the full programme, I invited in a team of external consultants to look closely at what we were about and to produce a written report for staff and governors. We had a university historian, a science specialist and other specialist assessors in maths and in English, which we divided into reading and writing. We had no money to pay for all this help, and these people gave us their time for free, looking at the children's work, watching lessons, assessing the programme as a whole.

A distinguished local GP, Laurie Pike, carried out a detailed analysis of the school health programme and wrote a paper on it for the staff. Dr Pike happened to be watching teaching in progress at the same time as we had a flying visit from a junior Conservative minister of education. The minister was a solicitor-turned-politician, who was interested, I suspected, in prep-school-type neatness. On his tour of the school he suddenly did what no visitor has done before or since - he asked a child to open his desk for him to look inside. It was a miracle that this particular child was immaculately tidy, and the minister purred with pleasure, looked at me and congratulated me on having such well-disciplined pupils. I smiled at the child, and the children - knowing exactly the name of the game - smiled back.

Dr Pike then happened to wander past, wearing his old mac, and carrying a black bag.

"Oh," I called, "Dr Pike, come and meet the minister."

The minister shook hands enthusiastically with Dr Pike and told him about a health education committee for which the Government had high hopes.

"Important stuff," said the minister, "waiting to see what it has to say."

After listening politely to a long narration from him, Dr Pike remarked:

"That's very interesting, minister. I am, of course, the chair."

"The chair?"

"Of your committee."

With a smile, the good Dr Pike picked up his bag and ambled off.

By the Nineties, when the racial mix had changed to around 75 Asian and 23 per cent Afro-Caribbean, the Grove was also doing pioneering work in philosophy, thinking skills and citizenship Many Grove children have the advantage of cultural stability, local reference points in religion and child-rearing traditions which, though old-fashioned, continue to give a modicum of security.

I'm encouraged when one day in the early Nineties a class delegates two spokespersons - both of them girls - to complain about a supply teacher.

"Can we speak to you privately, Sir?"

"Sure - what is it?"

"We're not happy with Mr - . We think you should do something about him."

"What's wrong?"

The three of us sit down with the door closed. I have sometimes talked to the children about "professionalism", what it means to behave appropriately in a community, or in a job. The two girls remind me of what I have been saying.

"His behaviour is inappropriate."

One of the girls is in my advanced writing group and understands perfectly what this means. "He pushed Rashid against the wall. He shouts too much, and doesn't listen."

"He's a bully," says the other girl, straight to the point.

"Are you being fair to him?" I ask. "Isn't he just trying to be strict?"

"You should be there. You wouldn't approve. You wouldn't let him push people around. You wouldn't let him hit us."

"Hit you? Give me an example."

And the examples begin to flow, subtle little assaults, verbal abuse and occasional "accidental" hitting. It is not a difficult class. The girls are measured and calm, presenting their case as though in a court of law. I can see them, one day, as lawyers. "I'll check it out," I say. Which I do immediately, by questioning the whole class, and collating the overwhelming evidence.

"Why didn't you say anything before?"

"We wanted to give him a chance."

"Didn't you tell your parents?"

"We thought you should know first."

It is a remarkable example of comradeship, of organised collaboration, the whole class working together.

I sent the teacher straight out of the school. "I've had these complaints," I said. "I'm convinced by them. I want you to leave immediately." He went without a word, although as he was a local authority teacher, and had been given a long-term placement, I expected a call from the LEA telling me that I was exceeding my authority. I had not had a full investigation; I had not discussed the incidents with the member of staff; I was subject to a union-driven grievance procedure, and had not gone through the proper disciplinary steps. I had simply sent him away. But I heard nothing of him again, either from the authority or from anywhere else.

I apologised to the class, and said it should not have happened. The teacher had been dismissed, and I was impressed by the professional way they had handled things. They sat in silence, gravely, and nodded their appreciation and understanding with the quietness of a jury that has considered a case with the greatest care and finally passed judgment.

These days I run a philosophy group with a view to getting children to think clearly, argue cogently, interrogate issues intelligently, and as a side-product revive the ancient tradition of writing good, argumentative essays. What I teach for the most part is epistemology: I encourage them to decide why they think what they do. How can they know something for sure? What does it mean in the contemporary world to know? This can lead to a discussion of values, a moral debate covering a wide range of issues to do with justice, child-rearing, the law, democratic decision-making and what it means to be an educated person. Even these nine to 10-year-olds can deal with such things with surprising subtlety and sophistication if they are helped with the linguistic and thinking processes that are involved.

A small girl talks to an interested visitor, who asks whether it is possible to know anything for certain.

"Of course," says the girl, "Descartes said 'Cogito ergo sum': do you know what that means? I think therefore I am. Do you think that's right?" she says. "Does it mean that my cat doesn't exist unless it can think?"

She pauses to consider and smiles at the visitor. "Of course it does think, at least I think it thinks."

I have a long conversation with Ingrid, one of our Afro-Caribbean teachers, who has been at the school for 10 years. She believes that what affects our children most in the long run is the quality of their day-to-day experience. If their experience has been warm, challenging, memorable for them personally, it will drive them on to greater things. She says that she meets former pupils who were unspectacular at school but have emerged 10 years on with all manner of unexpected successes. The problem I have with this - and of course I want to believe it - is how do I know, how can anyone know, that it is the way the school is that makes the difference? How can it be measured?

This is surely not a generation that is easily soft-soaped. It has been part of our mission to breed a little scepticism. To encourage the children to ask questions, from hypotheses, turn problems into puzzles. Are we training our children to think clearly? For themselves? It seems to me what we need right now is a spirit of questioning in a world where half-truths, sloppy rhetoric, seductive advertising, the misuse of evidence, media-driven opinion command the field. All very remote from that spirit of evidence-based caution in which my jury of children formulated, managed and finally - almost reluctantly - passed judgment on that unhappy supply teacher.

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, on May 28. TESreaders can buy a copy for pound;13.99 direct from Macmillan Distribution Ltd. Tel: 01256 302 692 and quote 'TESoffer'.Next week: Handsworth childhoods

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