Leeds united

24th February 2006 at 00:00

Merging a largely white school with its predominantly Asian neighbour was always going to be difficult. Then the London bombs went off and a fragile situation exploded. What followed, however, could become a model for racially integrated education. Matthew Brown reports

`Class Warfare" screams the front page of the Yorkshire Evening Post.

"Violence breaks out at newly merged school" runs the introduction, followed by reports of a gang of youths "pelting classrooms with stones".

It's a "riot scene", according to the paper, quelled only by police officers and the whirring presence of a helicopter.

For Colin Bell and his staff at South Leeds high school the trouble last term felt like their worst fears come frighteningly to life. "It wasn't something we managed brilliantly," admits Mr Bell. "I think in our heart of hearts we all knew we were going to have problems to manage. But that was on a scale none of us expected."

Mr Bell has been "managing problems" since he became headteacher here in October 2004, when South Leeds high was formed from two failing schools serving ethnically distinct and quite hostile communities, one of which counted the London bombers Mohammad Sidique Khan and Hasib Hussain among its former pupils. Yet, despite feeling "as though we're on the front line", as deputy head Barbara Trayer puts it, the school's pioneering work on racial equality has begun to heal the wounds, bringing national and local recognition.

Education Leeds - the not-for-profit company which has been running the city's schools with Capita and the Department for Education and Skills since 2001 - merged Matthew Murray high school in Holbeck with Merlyn Rees high school on the Belle Isle estate. Physically, both schools were past their best; Matthew Murray had falling rolls, and both had struggled along in special measures or serious weaknesses for some years. Money was available through the private finance initiative to build an pound;18 million campus in nearby Beeston. A new start beckoned.

But the decision was met with anxiety among teachers, and considerable resistance from both communities. Not only are the schools four miles apart, but while Holbeck has a large Asian population and a number of asylum seekers and refugee families, the community at Belle Isle - where the "riot" took place - is 98 per cent white, and known as a haunt of the British National party. The merger seemed to be inviting trouble.

"I was constantly asked, `why have they got to come over here?'," says Mr Bell of his early meetings with parents. In particular he found "some reluctance" among people in Belle Isle "to embrace the diverse cultures" in Holbeck.

With the new campus not due to open until September 2006, Mr Bell initially kept pupils on their separate sites while staff set up projects to promote racial equality. In October 2004, the school won a grant from Kick it Out, the anti-racist football campaign, to run a cross-curriculum project on the life of Albert Johanneson, a black footballer from South Africa who played for Leeds United but who died in poverty and obscurity.

An anti-racist group was set up, including pupils and residents from both areas. The school's head of creative arts, Steve Liles, organised a week-long festival on the culture of Jews, Muslims and Travellers, and staged theatre in education projects about asylum seekers. The school worked closely with the Leeds United learning support team's campaign against racism in schools.

By last summer teachers felt ready to bus pupils between the two sites, a practice-run for the following term when they'd be taught together: Year 7 and 8 at Holbeck, Year 9 and 10 at Belle Isle, with Year 11 pupils staying where they were. The start date was set for July 11. Then, on July 7, Mohammad Sidique Khan and Hasib Hussain exploded bombs in London and suddenly the world's media turned its attention to this small patch of South Yorkshire. Hasib Hussain had attended Matthew Murray between 1998 and 2003, while Mohammad Sidique Khan had also been a pupil before becoming a learning mentor at a feeder primary, Hillside, from 2001 to 2004.

"We had press from the whole world on our doorstep," says Mr Bell. "The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Chinese whatever. We thought there might be an arson attack." The anti-terrorist squad confiscated school videos; teachers were hounded by reporters; and children were offered pound;20,000 for photographs and information. For a school struggling to overcome its own divisions this was something of an ordeal.

"There was a great deal of shock in the school and the community," says Ms Trayer. "Mohammad was a transition mentor so he used to bring Year 6s here.

He was such a nice guy and well respected." Four days after the bombings the two halves of the school came together for the first time to work on global awareness. "The school was calm," says Ms Trayer. "We thought attendance would be low, but there was no impact, or on behaviour. It showed how far we'd come in a year."

Influencing attitudes outside the school gates wasn't so easy. The trouble at Belle Isle came two days into the new school year, as pupils mixed for the first time, and shortly after a video of Mohammad Sidique Khan condemning the West was shown on television. The violence was started by a group of white youths from outside the school, some of them former pupils; the police issued 11 anti-social behaviour orders. "It knocked any complacency out of us, that's for sure," says Mr Bell, who admits he'll be "managing the fall-out" of that and a second, more minor incident, for the rest of this academic year.

Some parents said the trouble was inevitable, but otherwise, says Ms Trayer, "everybody wanted to help". A local youth charity, the St Lukes Project, offered lunchtime football sessions; community groups such as the Belle Isle Foundation held workshops; and the Army ran team-building exercises. Meetings were held with leaders of local mosques, who were reassured by the school's commitment to promoting racial harmony.

Within the school, Mr Liles surrendered his role as head of creative arts to take responsibility for racial equality. "Amazingly, in school we've had very very few racial incidents," he says. "What we're about here is education, winning hearts and minds, and we're doing that. The hard part is getting through to the community outside school."

The message is being carried by pupils; four Year 11s from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds have made a DVD highlighting their origins and customs. There are multicultural music and fashion festivals, involving pupils and parents from all communities; and a large world map has been produced showing the origins of everyone connected to the school. "It's saying we're representative of the world, not Holbeck or Belle Isle," says Mr Liles.

Last term South Leeds reached level 1 of the Stephen Lawrence standard, a scheme to recognise schools with a strong commitment to racial equality.

Education Leeds's race equality manager, Rehana Minhas, praises the school's work "across the whole curriculum and outside of school, involving local youth and community groups".

Mr Bell has reason to feel cautiously optimistic. Reports of racial bullying are down, the school is the most improved in Leeds for attendance, and its racially mixed sports teams are beating all-comers on the playing fields.

"We are not out of the woods yet," says Mr Bell. "I'm not naive enough to think the second we walk into the new building everything is going to be hunky dory; we are not going to rid our school of racism like that. We are talking about a five-year project that we want to deliver in three. When children start to make friendships from different communities then I'll know we are bringing them together."

The signs are good. Mr Bell walked on to the playground one lunchtime around Christmas to find a very different scene from September. "There was this huge football match. There were kids from the Afro-Caribbean community, the Asian community, the white community, all playing football, banging into each other, knocking each other over, picking each other up, cheering when each other scored. It was fantastic to see."

With some 30,000 new service, printing and manufacturing jobs expected in the nearby Aire Valley over the next 20 years, there's a lot at stake.

"We've got to make sure our kids can compete for those on a level playing field," says Mr Bell. "It's a huge, huge responsibility. But there isn't a more exciting education project in the country. When we pull it off people are going to be clamouring to know how we did it."

For information on the Stephen Lawrence Education Standards: www.educationleeds.co.uk

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