Return of the gala queen

27th July 2007 at 01:00
The mining community of Manton, devastated by strikes and pit closure, is slowly rebuilding itself. At the centre of that regeneration is the area's primary school. Photographs Lorne Campbell

at 32, Lisa Hancock has 10 children. Her dad got laid off when the Manton pit closed in 1994. Last year, her husband lost his job as a demolition worker. Her older children hang out with friends who drink on corners and ride about on illegal motorbikes.

But things are starting to look up for the Hancocks and for the 6,300-strong community of Manton, an area of Worksop in Nottinghamshire. The local primary school has set up a breakfast club, where the Hancock children can get bacon butties for 60p. On Friday afternoons, Mrs Hancock joins other parents at the school for a coffee club.

And this month, 5-year-old Bethany Hancock was crowned gala queen, after Manton's headteacher revived the old Miners' Gala in a bid to rebuild a damaged community. Watching her daughter parade from the school to the athletic grounds in her gala queen dress was, says Mrs Hancock, "the happiest day of my life".

It was also a pretty proud moment for Bill Ball, the headteacher, standing quietly in the background as his costumed pupils leap from the parade floats and head for the fairground rides. Mr Ball, a 54-year-old Scotsman, left a good Edinburgh school when he realised that good test results were making him complacent.

Divorced, with his two daughters grown up, he needed a challenge so he took on one of the toughest in Britain. It was 2001, and Manton had to advertise four times for a headteacher before appointing Mr Ball.

The legacy of the year-long miners' strike in the mid-1980s had left the town divided. Neighbours and brothers would not speak to each other because individual circumstances forced them to take sides. Some still don't talk.

Hundreds of men were made redundant before the pit's closure in 1994, when the last 800 workers were given notice. About half have never worked again.

At 7am, men wandered the streets outside the rented, semi-detached houses, not knowing what to do with their empty days but unable to sleep. Children stopped turning up to school. Heroin was rife. Marriages broke up. People suffered from depression; some committed suicide.

The Miners' Welfare Club hosted its last gala and sports day in 1996. Shortly afterwards it was turned into an athletic club, but there were few athletes.

That same year, Manton's teachers refused to teach a 10-year-old boy who had attacked staff, on one occasion with a baseball bat. They walked out. "The Battle of Manton School," shouted the Mail on Sunday. "Parents' fury at yob crisis," hollered the Daily Mirror.

Mr Ball inherited a school that ranked among the worst in the country on every possible measure: only 13 per cent of pupils achieved government expectations in English; only 16 per cent in maths. The chair of governors described the school as a zoo, where staff were assaulted or even injured.

The first thing Mr Ball told the chairman was that he could forget about a quick fix: it would take five years to get any real results.

"On my very first week, I went to watch a school football game, and two of the parents were on the sideline, smoking and effing and fighting," he says. "I realised that I couldn't do it on my own - it was a community-wide issue."

When he later hosted an adult education meeting at the school, someone mentioned the Miners' Gala. He offered to provide leadership, IT facilities and some teacher time to revive it.

Meanwhile, he had more pressing problems. The school was ranked in bottom position in the national school league tables. "We have let the children down," Mr Ball told The TES at the time.

But he persevered, leading a community group in setting up the gala. Some had left school at 15 with basic literacy and numeracy skills. Now they were in charge of a major project, dealing with everything from planning and health consents to waste disposal. And their efforts were successful. In July 2003, the Manton Miners' Gala returned to the park in front of the athletic club. The enthusiastic community response encouraged Mr Ball and his team to make it an annual event. He won pound;1.2 million government funding to create the Manton Community Alliance, an organisation that seeks to give local people the skills and confidence to help themselves.

In 2004, Manton primary was fourth from bottom of the national league tables. The following year it was 15th from bottom. Last year, it did not appear in the roll of shame at all.

Long-term unemployment in Manton remains high, but other jobless and crime figures have dropped. An Ipsos Mori survey of 400 households this year shows a community with a widening smile on its face. The people of Manton are delighted with improvements in their pre-school and primary school, they feel safer and are proud of streets largely free of rusting cars, graffiti and drug dealers.

Down the hill at the big, ugly brick clubrooms, Tom Watson, Dave Potts and other former miners have played their part in helping Manton renew itself.

Mr Potts, a former National Union of Mineworkers secretary, spent eight years unemployed after being laid off at the end of the miners' strike. Now 54, he is a teaching assistant at a pupil referral unit, set up for children who have been excluded from school.

"This was once a thriving community," he said. "You'd see people congregating, enjoying life, providing for their families. We wanted to get that back again."

Two weeks ago, Mr Potts and Mr Watson carried the colliery banner in the 2007 gala parade

Is it mere coincidence that the mood for both the school and Manton as a whole has improved so dramatically over the same period that the school has immersed itself in the community?

One man not sharing that mood is John Mann, the local Labour MP. "I don't give a damn about schools that are working in the community and aren't getting test results," he said.

Mr Ball may not win Mr Mann over, but he is sure that success for the school and for the community are inseparable.

"I am under great pressure from certain sectors of the community," he says. "I'm challenging authorities to give me more money. People say 'What's that got to do with being a headteacher?'."

Four years on, Mr Ball is stepping back from his involvement in the gala. But he is not retreating inside the school gates: he has more ideas for this little pit community. After all, he says: "If you can't fix the community, you'll never fix the school."

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