Retire? Not on your Nelly

27th October 2006 at 01:00
Henderson Clarke is happiest when he is helping struggling pupils to achieve. Elaine Williams talks to a 72-year-old teacher who wouldn't be anywhere else

Better than retirement. More enjoyable than being on the beach. That's how Henderson Clarke describes his job. And he should know, because as a 72-year-old West Indian man, brought up in Barbados, he could opt for retirement and life by the sea. Tomorrow.

Instead, he prefers a senior management position in a large London comprehensive. Mr Clarke is head of ethnic minority achievement at the Cardinal Wiseman Roman Catholic school in Ealing where he is very much the big daddy: the father of the school, the wise elder statesman.

The TES featured Henderson Clarke when he was 69 and still teaching (December 5, 2003). Now, he is one of very few teachers still going strong in school beyond 70. And this term he has no intention of slowing down or taking a step back in any way. According to Paul Patrick, the school's headteacher, Henderson Clarke's wisdom and experience in teaching and caring for children is integral to Cardinal Wiseman's success. He intends to keep Mr Clarke on for as long as he is willing and able. When he was 65, the local authority decided he would have to come off the payroll, so the school employs him directly on a one-year renewable contract. "He was too good to lose," says Mr Patrick.

A classicist by training, Mr Clarke acts as mentor and counsellor to children with problems, tutors those with language difficulties, helps sixth formers prepare for university, teaches A-level and GCSE sets that can't be squeezed into the timetable, models best practice in teaching to other staff and raises the game for borderline students. Mr Patrick values him as a man of "huge moral integrity" he describes as always kind and respectful towards pupils and who keeps his promises.

Mr Clarke says it is the good relationships in the 2,000-strong school - and helping children to achieve their best - that keep him in the post.

Last year, 94 per cent of GCSE students achieved five A*-C passes - despite the fact that the majority speak English as an additional language - with the expectation of even better results this year. It is a staggering improvement on the 34 per cent pass rate that Mr Patrick inherited when he became head of the school nine years ago.

"The school looks after its children very well," says Mr Clarke. "We act on the basis that we care for them as we care for our own children. If you ask me what stage any child in this school is at, what stage they will be at in six weeks' time or this time next year, give me five minutes and I would be able to tell you. Above all, Mr Clarke spends a lot of his time talking to students, finding out about them, what makes them tick. He has supported children who came to Cardinal Wiseman with no English all the way into top universities. One Bulgarian girl whose mother is a cleaner and father a retired weightlifter, achieved eight A*s and some of the top GCSE scores in the country through Mr Clarke's guidance, having arrived at the school with not a word of English. He noticed almost immediately that she was "a sponge for knowledge". She has just gained a first in maths at Imperial College and has been taken straight onto the trading floor of City Group, but she still comes back to Cardinal Wiseman to see Henderson Clarke.

When he arrives at work at 7am, children are waiting for him in his room.

This is where they eat breakfast, debate, read books, and seek his advice and friendship. "If you show children that you are with them, that you will support them, give them time, talk to them as you would your own children, then they will always work for you," he says. "I never tell a child that I am too busy to see them because you never know what a difference that time makes to a child's life.

Mr Clarke appreciates working for a head who shares his outlook. Paul Patrick keeps his door open, and unless he is in important meetings pupils know they can approach him at any time. Before his headship, Cardinal Wiseman was associated with criminal gangs and drug-dealing. A boy was stabbed and murdered outside the school. Mr Clarke remembers it well. He had recently joined the school. Now Mr Patrick sees children in and out of the gates.

Mr Clarke, too, has a roving brief, is welcome in every classroom and will often work beside pupils who are struggling. "None of my colleagues ever questions why I am there," he says. "They appreciate the support and there is total trust between us."

These days, if a child brought drugs or a knife into school, the word would be out within seconds, says Mr Clarke. "They could never, never hide it. Mr Patrick would know. The children tell him everything. They also know that what he says, he means." Being part of such a school, he believes, has to be better than retirement. He says: "My job is whatever it takes to make this a better place. I have complete freedom.

"The children keep me up to date with all sorts of things. They keep me alive. I learn so much from them, talking to them is always a revelation. I cannot think of anything I would rather do."

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