The highfliers hijacked by events but inspired to act

30th September 2011 at 01:00
Sixty-six aspiring heads search for answers to the riots

It happened by complete chance. But last month, as England's cities erupted, scores of present and future leaders of schools in communities affected by the rioting were gathered in a single place.

The coincidental timing of a residential course for aspiring heads of the schools attended by the country's most deprived pupils has allowed them to form a unique, collective response to the unprecedented civil unrest that some have sought to blame on schools.

On the Monday morning, after trouble had spread across the capital from Tottenham to Brixton and other areas of London, 66 participants on the Future Leaders scheme were making their way to the National College for School Leadership in Nottingham for a fortnight's intensive training.

"We were living and working there, so it felt a bit like being in a bubble," said Deb Garfield, one of the trainees. "But when we got up in the morning and turned on the TV in our rooms, all hell was breaking loose."

The programme is designed to train teachers to lead secondaries in the most disadvantaged urban communities, and as many as half of the trainees, mentors and course leaders present in Nottingham had worked in areas touched by the riots.

Some were able to point out the neighbourhoods where they taught as footage of the unfolding unrest was broadcast.

Helen Drury, a course mentor who until last year was vice-principal of Mossbourne Academy, a brick's throw from the rioting that took place in Hackney, said the events caused the group to examine their own contribution: "It felt like this was a group of educationalists in challenging areas that might have already done something about this, or could do something about this in September. There was a feeling of responsibility.

"It quickly went from trying to work out why it had happened to thinking that, as future heads, maybe we should be doing something more proactive."

Among the early results was a slideshow presentation for an assembly, which begins with the words: "6th-10th August 2011. What were YOU doing?"

Photographs of the riots follow, interspersed with more upbeat images demonstrating other activities pupils might have participated in during the summer, such as mountain biking, girl guiding and playing football.

Sue Ball, one of the trainees, believes that the story of the riots should not be presented as one of negativity alone: "We feel it is important that young people are aware that many positive events also happened during the week of the riots, and they do not all feel defined by the actions of a minority.

"While it might be tempting to do a `flash and dash' activity, we ought to give young people a chance to really engage in this issue."

Some of the images used also showed the more optimistic side to have emerged from the riots, such as the army of volunteers who assembled in some areas the morning after the unrest to clear up the neighbourhood. The whole presentation was accompanied by the Black Eyed Peas song Where is the Love? and finished with the words "Respect, Rights, Responsibility".

A follow-up tutorial session was designed, using the now-famous image of a woman jumping from a building burning in the Croydon riots.

It asks pupils to reflect on her plight and the motives and qualities of those waiting to catch her, so that they can "engage with the positive values demonstrated during and arising from the riots".

When discussed with the whole Future Leaders course, the activities raised as many questions as they answered. Some felt there was a risk that discussing the riots might imply that pupils were responsible.

There were also differing views over the best time to raise the subject and questions over whether special training would be needed for staff and whether they were clear about the appropriate procedure if pupils admitted to involvement in the trouble.

But course members all felt it was important to allow pupils to follow up the tutorial with an assembly showing their own response to the riots.

"The events of this week are a part of history," said Ms Garfield. "And it will be our students who tell the story."

pound;50m Clegg pledge

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg drew headlines last week when he announced a new pound;50 million scheme in which up to 100,000 pupils in danger of going off the rails will be encouraged to go to "summer school".

Speaking at the Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham, Mr Clegg said the children will be offered the two-week courses between primary and secondary school.

He said the initiative, which would offer catch-up classes, would stop children "falling through the cracks".

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