Keeping faith in Toxteth

25th May 2001 at 01:00
It has survived the riots, a dwindling population and desperate poverty. Now Kingsley primary has been relaunched with a Muslim ethos in a new building. Gerald Haigh visits Liverpool 8.

Some schools feel comfortable as soon as you enter them. Teachers are welcoming and ready to talk; the children are outgoing, unbowed and friendly.

Kingsley primary in Liverpool is like that. Just days after they moved into a new building, children are already settled into their classrooms and establishing their playground territories.

Even so, this is a school at the inner-city front line - in Toxteth, Liverpool 8 - where a frightening series of riots in the early 1980s did much to define the phrase "urban deprivation". Some things are unchanged. Ofsted's recent report on Kingsley described its social context as "among the most disadvantaged nationally and the most ethnically diverse in the city of Liverpool".

There are 16 ethnic groups in the school. About half of the 126 pupils are Muslim; 40 per cent speak English as an additional language while Arabic and Somali are the main languages spoken at home; 75 five per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals.

Yet by the time Peter Gurnham and his team send them on to secondary school, these children are almost always functioning at national average level or above in the basic subjects. It is a remarkable achievement and it happens, says Ofsted, "because the quality of teaching is very good".

The report continues: "The headteacher gives excellent leadership and is supported very well by a strong, hard-working leadership team and an excellent and knowledgeable governing body."

Brought up in Toxteth, Gurnham taught in secondary schools for three years, then deciding he preferred primary education. He worked as a supply teacher then, in 1979, took a position at Granby primary school, which amalgamated with Tiber primary school to form Kingsley 20 years later.

Gurnham became head of Granby in the early 1980s, just after the Toxteth riots. It was a baptism of fire. "The kids were unsettled," he recalls. "They weren't sleeping properly; there were sirens and noises all night. A lot of kids came to school and went to sleep."

Contrary to some views, he says the riots were not racially motivated: "The feeling was that it was the community against authority."

The area immediately around the school is very much an urban village. Parent-governor Paula Goss says there is a friendly atmosphere in the area:

"The children know me by my first name, and you can walk down the street and say hello 10 times. And if you've not been around the shops for a while, people will ask if you've been ill."

The construction of the new school building, located on the playing field of the old school, was worked out with staff and parents.

The commuity and the authority have taken it as an opportunity to celebrate their diversity and have created what they describe as "a community primary school with an Islamic ethos". The Islamic community was enthusiastic about this, but there was an obvious need for careful consultation with all the parents.

"There was some initial reticence among the other parents," Gurnham says. "They wondered whether we were going to become a Muslim school. But we got round that by showing that we, the staff, weren't going away - we'd still be running it."

There was a determination, however, that the phrase "Islamic ethos" would have real meaning. "We wanted the Muslim community to feel that their values weren't just tacked on. So the Muslim dress code is incorporated into the school dress code, and everything served in the kitchen is Halal food - everybody can eat everything. Our jelly is halal jelly. Our gravy is halal gravy."

All of the effort - respecting cultures, helping children feel at home - is directed at the core purpose of improving learning, and here the school is successful. Ask any good school what makes for success and you find there are no secret formulas, no tricks. Kingsley's deputy head, Sheila Wareing, herself an experienced classroom teacher, talks of "a lot of whole-class teaching, and careful attention to children who are either less able or more able than the others".

The school's system of targets is also important. "The children know their own targets - what they have to achieve," says Wareing. "They know what they're doing and why they're doing it."

Another important feature, she feels, is the supportive attitude of the parents. Parents are well catered for with support groups and courses in English, and there's a busy parents' room in the school. And, perhaps because of the nature of the area, almost all children up to Year 6 are brought to school. "That makes it easy to ask them to pop in for a chat," she says. "The teachers are on good terms with the parents."

The other significant ingredient in the school's success is the stability of the staff . "The staff are very experienced in dealing with children who have problems, and there are very few of us who have worked anywhere other than the inner city," Wareing adds.

The ability to keep good people is a mark of leadership. Gurnham says: "You build your team and then you work hard. In 1982 there were good staff around and it was a matter of keeping them and building on the foundations. Young staff came in: if they liked it they'd stay - if they didn't, they'd be gone in a fortnight."

Kingsley is a remarkable school in a remarkable area, led by dedicated and largely unsung heroes. They now have a building worthy of their efforts, which is a sign of Liverpool's confidence in a community that once felt forgotten.

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