Peacebroker ends an ugly race war

12th December 2003 at 00:00
Nigel Jobling's school was notorious for racist violence. Adi Bloom reports on how he and his staff transformed it

People used to call it Death Valley high.

As the morning mist drifted over the Tarmac towards the Staffordshire hills, two gangs of youths would gather in the playground of Thistley Hough comprehensive, armed with bottles, bricks and fists clenched in readiness.

On one side, were white pupils, the other, Asian.

"You couldn't walk down the corridor without being called a Paki," said 14-year-old Madausr Hussain. "When you walked on your own to class, you would get jumped."

"You couldn't go to the toilet on your own," agreed his Year 10 classmate, Shazad Khan.

These were the conditions at the Stoke-on-Trent school when Nigel Jobling took over as headteacher in 2001. Known as Trent Valley high until 1997, its notorious violence and culture of fear had earned it the nickname Death Valley. Drawn from single-race primaries, in a town where the British National Party has an active presence, white and Asian pupils only came together to fight.

"When I arrived here, I saw incidents worse than anything I'd seen before," said Mr Jobling, a head with xx years teaching experience. "Everything seemed tied to racial groups. I could tell them in assembly not to be racist and it would make no difference."

Thistley Hough become a performing arts college in 2000 and using the extra money, Mr Jobling and Karen Healey, his deputy, set up a range of after-school dance and music classes, offering street-dancing, bodypopping and rap.

"These are street-credible dances," said Ms Healey. "Pupils needed something that wasn't effeminate; something that they really wanted to do."

Staff recruited the coolest teenagers, knowing that others would follow their example. Inclusion came with expectations. "They have to sign up to our equal-opportunities agenda," said Ms Healey. "Classes are on Friday afternoon. But Friday is also detention time. So they are agreeing to behave, otherwise they can't come."

Participants created a performance group Gener8. Striking dramatic poses in matching red t-shirts, Gener8 tell the history of the school in a 15-minute dance and rap production that recreates a classsroom on stage. "People like you make this world corrupt!" the performers shout.

Mr Jobling also set up an after-school pool and table-tennis club. Again targeting popular teenagers, he encouraged white and Asian pupils to mix in a laid-back environment.

The effect has been dramatic. Forced to spend time with Asians, white pupils have seen their prejudices evaporate. "Asian people look very different, so I thought we'd have nothing in common," said 15-year-old Nick Proud. "But they're just the same as us, really."

Fifteen-year-old Sharaz Liaqat said: "When we were in Year 7, older lads would tell us to come and fight. Now, we tell younger lads not to fight.

I'm like a role model in school."

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