Minor's salvation;Social exclusion

29th January 1999 at 00:00
It reads like a busy week in the life of a hard-pressed social worker. But it is one day in the life of a headteacher in a former mining village. Since the pit closed, the village became a dumping ground for all society's ills. And now only the school is keeping hope alive. Wendy Wallace reports.

Julie Murray clips along the gleaming corridors of Fitzwilliam junior and infant school, turning off unnecessary lights, pressing drawing pins into displays and rallying the troops for the coming day. While the sky outside is still pink, the headteacher deals with the first of many crises that the next 10 hours will throw at her. Danny's landlord has burned all his family's possessions, including Danny's reading folder, says the class teacher. Does his mother have to pay for the book? No, says Julie. School will.

After a decade spent working in schools in Gateshead and poor areas of Leeds, Julie felt she knew about social deprivation. "I thought I'd seen it all," she says. "Two fatalities, sexual abuse, physical abuse."

When she took up the headship of Fitzwilliam, in a once-thriving mining village near Wakefield in west Yorkshire, colleagues joked that she was settling for an easy life in the leafy lanes. (It's where the cricketer Geoff Boycott used to live with his mother.) But when she arrived in January 1992, Julie found she'd seen nothing yet.

Single-storey and built of brick, the school stands stolidly among the cornfields at the opposite end of the village from the now grassed-over pit. When the school doors open, as many fathers as mothers stand shivering in the playground - young-looking men, some of them in thin, dirty clothes. Julie goes among them, greeting everyone by name, lending all by herself a feeling of confidence and stability to the scene, smart and upright among the hunched and bedraggled parents. "My parents like to see me," she says. "They're not keen on appointment-making."

Across Britain, ex-mining communities like this one are still adjusting to life after coal. But the stresses showing up in the classrooms and corridors of this 260-pupil school are more complex than that. Julie - born and bred in a County Durham mining village - has written to Tony Blair, The TES, the local chairman of housing, and to anyone else who might or should be concerned about what is happening here .

Fitzwilliam is, by most measures, a successful school: outstanding national test results in 1998, a highly complimentary OFSTED report, motivated staff, engaged children, a loyal and busy parent-teachers' association and the responsibility of mentoring staff at a nearby "failing" school. The school building has a cherished feeling about it, and Julie was described by OFSTED as "an outstanding leader with a clear vision for the school's future".

That vision is faltering, she says, because of social factors beyond her control. Fitzwilliam's main catchment area lies across a field from the school, in a patch of terraces known locally as "the city". Once a solid community of miners, now many of the properties have been bought by a housing association with a remit to house the homeless. Julie takes me on a tour of this rural city, its streets littered front and back with sodden mattresses and clothes, old lino and burnt-out cars.

Half the properties are empty, meters torn apart for the wiring, windows smashed. One house has been for sale for seven years; others put up for auction fail to reach their reserve price of pound;5,000. A few houses have curtains at the windows and washing on the line, but most look like what they are: a campsite for some of the most desperate and destitute people in Britain.

Most families arrive in Fitz-william having been evicted from local authority property, or having left drug rehabilitation programmes or prison - or simply in cars, with a bag of clothes and an uncertain history. The next week, the children are in school.

They may be only six or seven, but this could be their fourth or fifth school. "They have never stayed anywhere long enough to make roots," says Julie. "And as for their education, well by all means let us have targets but when a child appears in Year 1 who cannot recognise his or her own name, nor a letter of the alphabet nor a number from one to five, you have a hell of a lot to do to get them to the national average by Year 2."

Before school has even begun today, Julie has comforted a grandmother whose heroin addict daughter collapsed at the bus stop the day before; calmed an agitated mother who believes her child is being bullied in the playground; and had a whispered conversation in the corridor with a woman who expresses her distress by pulling out her hair and eyelashes. The woman is twitching under her hat, in despair over the pound;10 contribution for a forthcoming week-long school trip to the seaside. "Don't worry," says Julie, "We'll sort it out."

But she's a headteacher, not a social worker. She goes seamlessly into talking to two of the teachers being mentored here, discussing the budget for fresh flowers (pound;25 per month) and her policy on classroom displays: "Anything by children, that they can own. I don't need to know what the staff's talents are. I should have found that out at interview." Then Jenny Rosen and her sister arrive (see panel, page 7) and another 10 minutes are hijacked for emergency pastoral care.

There's a man waiting to price a security fence and extra closed-circuit TVs - the last piece of fencing installed was stolen, and parents and staff are worried that the playground opens on three sides to fields. Julie takes the salesman into her office and discusses installing a panic button under her desk for the next time a parent threatens her.

The previous week, a man known to social services for his extreme emotional abuse of his stepson had been in here, threatening to "fist" her because the education welfare officer had visited. Most weeks bring threats in one form or another, although Julie's warm and direct manner is well-received by the community. When she gave birth to her son five years ago, she received 64 hand-knitted baby cardigans.

A minute after the security man has left, Julie's standing in front of a class, covering for her acting deputy. "Christians are people who believe in...? Not Santa, Leanne, Jesus."

Some of the children are well-fed and shod, glossy-haired and confident. Others have pinched faces and look scruffy and wary. One child, new in this class, is about to become the subject of care proceedings, with a gaggle of siblings; his mother's boyfriend is a convicted paedophile who has dropped out of treatment. At morning play, the boy stands apart, watching the others play. "He's a love," says Julie. "I could take him home."

It's this child who is the subject of Julie's next diary slot, a meeting with social services at their crumbling offices a mile up the road. The team leader apologises for the fact that she's not been able to do anything about the case, because of staff shortages and an overwhelming workload of other nightmare scenarios. "Nonetheless I have major, major anxieties about this family," she says. The children are almost certainly being sexually abused, as well as neglected.

She has anxieties, too, about the man's frequent visits to school. "I'm in loco parentis while children are in school," she says. "And yet I have no legal right to keep such a person away." The team leader says the next step is to organise a meeting with the family, in their house, but Julie expects the family to "lift" if they get wind of the forthcoming care orders; already they're known to social services departments all over Britain. (All six children were taken into emergency care after this article was written.) Back at school, the nursery teacher rushes up to inform Julie that a parent who has served time for theft has just let himself into the nursery, using the combination lock number. "I nearly had a heart attack," he says, looking pale. "Get the combinations changed immediately," says Julie. She's got an appointment now with a mother whose child, about to enter nursery, has a life-threatening allergy to peanuts. And so it goes on.

But running Fitzwilliam School isn't only about "firefighting". In the seven years of Julie's headship, substantial resources have been put into the school for refurbishment, teaching resources and extra staff. There is evident pride among staff and parents at the way the school's fortunes are being turned around by sheer graft. Staff have initiated extra classes for the most able in Years 2 and 6, aware that they must also cater for these children. (Of the eight star literacy pupils, only two had a dictionary at home.) The PTA is dedicated. Women who work long hours for low pay - often single parents - still find the energy to slog away raising money through bingo evenings and square dancing sessions. "Our school means everything to us," says PTA chair Carol Andrews, still in her Argos uniform and one of the only ones not frightened to give her name. "It's important for our children to have a break in life."

The women tell how they can never leave a door unlocked, even when they are indoors, are afraid to go to the railway station after three in the afternoon, and must constantly tell their children never to touch anything they find on the ground because the village is littered with the detritus of drug use. They're frightened of the paedophiles, the smackheads, the dealers, the men with shotguns.

OFSTED praised Julie and her staff for the "calm, orderly and happy environment" the school provides. But this community believes it is being used as a social dustbin, ignored by the Government's Social Exclusion Unit because it lies in deceptively beautiful countryside, the rolling hills of forgotten Britain.

Julie will not give up the struggle. But she thinks people should know what's going on in villages like this. "And if the moon was made of green cheese, I would like..." she wrote in her letter to the Prime Minister. She went on to list only modest demands: better school security, police who come when called, social workers sufficiently resourced to do their jobs, her EWO not to be transferred and "recognition for just what my staff are up against on a daily basis".


At 9.10, all is quiet in Fitzwilliam. The children are settled in their classes and the corridors are empty. Two girls appear; the older one, pulling the younger one along by the hand, is heaving with silent sobs. Julie Murray stops them and asks her gently what's wrong. "Your hair's soaking wet," she says. "Is your Mam all right?" "She's all right. She's just sleepy all the time." The older one, Jenny, can barely get the words out for crying.

Julie takes the two girls to the staffroom, and they perch on the edge of the comfortable chairs.While the younger girl sits silent and passive, an intensely-felt story pours from her sister's lips. "When I got home nobody were in, so I went round to Mick's house to see if she were there. She weren't there but he said..."

Her hands are red and raw, poking out of her frayed cuffs and her eyes circled with black rings. She is crying not because she spent the night running round looking for her mother and this morning has somehow hit her head, but because she doesn't want to let her teacher down. "I promised I'd be on time today," she weeps.

Julie makes the girls sweet tea. They haven't had any breakfast, although Jenny didn't consider that worth talking about in the scheme of things. "We had something last night,"she says distractedly.

Julie spent a day last week with the girls' mother, helping her get the locks changed after her violent boyfriend arrived at midnight, in defiance of a court injunction, and began once again to batter her. (It was one of the things that prompted her to write to Tony Blair: "Have you ever had ornaments thrown at you, been punched in the face and kidneys, locked in the house, tried to climb out of the bathroom window...could you say no to that woman and go to bed easy that night?") Now the man is back in the house. "So how did he get in?" she asks Jenny. "You tell me," shrugs the child, with all the world-weariness of a disillusioned thirtysomething. She looks restored now, leaning onthe radiator with a mug of tea in her hands.

I look for the girl later, in the good work assembly. She's swallowed by her classmates, a small pale face camouflaged by other children.

The mother hasn't returned the medical form which is vital if Jenny, who is nine, is to go on the school trip next week. At the end of the day, Julie asks her to go home and getthe form completed then bring it back to school. It gets dark, and she's still not back.

Julie's doing other things - talking to a governor, putting in an appearance at the Book Fair. She'll go down later in the car if necessary.

Suddenly, Jenny appears again, bearing the form. Mum hadn't filled it in because she didn't have a pen in the house, she says, smiling.

Julie checks the form then goes into the stationery cupboard and emerges with two Biros which she gives to Jenny.

Jenny goes to look at the books on display in the hall, the last child in school.

Later she sets off, holding the two yellow pens, small and alone.

* The girls' names have been changed

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