Results are not ideal

27th June 1997 at 01:00
LIVING COMMUNITY LIVING SCHOOL. By Chris Searle. Tufnell Press Pounds 11.99

December 1995: a row in Sheffield involving the then opposition education spokesman David Blunkett, the city council, the governors of a comprehensive school and its head teacher was nearing conclusion. After disastrous inspection reports from the Office for Standards in Education, pressure from Mr Blunkett and a campaign by one of the teachers' unions, the council stepped in and sacked the head of Earl Marshal school.

The head, Chris Searle, was recognised by anyone who trained as a teacher in the 1970s as the author of Classrooms of Resistance, sacked from his school in Stepney, east London, for publishing a book of poems by children in their vernacular.

Living Community, Living School, a collection of essays written over the past five years, tells the story of Earl Marshal. It tells of a multiracial inner-city school struggling against a threat to close it and going on to become the vibrant heart of its community.

Earl Marshal, says Searle, was an internationalist school. It "sought to create a moral groundwork based upon internal and external solidarity". It meant pupils fundraising for foreign causes and campaigning against moves to change Britain's asylum laws. And it meant a curriculum based not on an understanding of British culture but on the history of imperialism in the countries where the children came from: Africa, the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean.

But there were powerful forces ranged against the internationalist school.At their heart was the national curriculum, devised, says Searle, for "mainstream suburban schools with predominantly white and middle-class school populations".

Sheffield City Council, according to this account, acted because of pressure from members of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Woman Teachers, because it was unhappy with the school's internationalism and because it feared the independently-minded and mainly black governing body.

But that is not the whole story. The point Searle somehow misses is that what the council leaders, Mr Blunkett and the OFSTED inspectors attacked was his school's poor examination results.

Passing conventional examinations is of vital importance for young people in the inner city, Searle concedes at one point. But teachers, he says, have a duty to put this "official knowledge" into a critical framework and offer "alternative perspectives".

Chris Searle, as I found out when I interviewed him at the height of his battle with the city council, is full of idealism and optimism. He has gone on from the traumas of Earl Marshal to training teachers, taking charge of the English PGCE course at Goldsmiths College in London. But his educational philosophy, as put into practice at Earl Marshal, it out of kilter with today's results-orientated world.

Sometime in the 1980s, with the repeated re-election of Conservative governments, along with their education policies, national curriculum, league tables, OFSTED and all, many of their critics realised they had a point. Examination results do matter, and perhaps especially for those very pupils from ethnic minority and working-class backgrounds for whom Mr Searle cares so much.

Living Community, Living School is peppered with poetry written by children from a multi-racial community, and Searle's idealism drips from every page. But his project at Earl Marshal came at the wrong time, in the face of increasing pressure for results, which has shown no signs of abating now that Mr Blunkett is in charge.

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