Risinghill revolution

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
Schools were being named and shamed when Tony Blair was still in shorts.

And comps were getting a bad press long before 'bog standard' became a term of abuse. David Newnham catches up on a school that was controversially closed 40 years ago but whose pupils are still fighting to restore its reputation

John Bailey makes no bones about why he visited the Friends Reunited website. Like so many before him, he was curious about an old flame. But when he entered the name of the school she had attended in the Sixties - Risinghill, in Islington, north London - his curiosity was taken in an unexpected direction.

The site had devoted an entire page to the school's history. Risinghill, it seemed, had been famous - some would say infamous. There had even been a book about it, which had caused quite a stir back in the days when he had been too occupied with girls and scooters to bother much about such things.

Intrigued, Mr Bailey tracked down and read a copy of Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School, a bestselling book by Leila Berg published in 1968, three years after the school was closed. "The outcome made me livid," he says. "There had been a travesty of justice."

Why had such an expensive new school been shut down in a blaze of media publicity within five years of its opening? And why had Michael Duane, its outstanding head, never again been given a position of responsibility?

Returning to the internet, Mr Bailey found he was not the only one looking for answers. A number of ex-pupils had already formed a research group, and were collecting material for a belated sequel to Leila Berg's book. He joined them, and set up a website to help spread the word.

From the outset, the group's founders, ex-Risinghill pupils Lynn Brady and Isabel Sheridan (classmates may remember them as Lynn Stockwell and Isabel Wingrove), made it their priority to contact as many ex-pupils as possible, since it is their views and experiences, apparently disregarded by policy-makers at the time, that will form the basis of their book.

It's an emphasis to which the late Michael Duane (he died in 1997) would no doubt have given his whole-hearted approval. For Mr Duane was nothing if not child-centred.

Born in Ireland in 1915, educated at a Jesuit grammar school in north London and then Queen Mary College, he did his teacher training at London University's Institute of Education. When war interrupted his early career, he distinguished himself on the battlefield, winning medals for outstanding bravery. And it was a brave man indeed who, on returning to teaching, set about applying the most progressive principles to the job.

In 1948, he became one of the UK's youngest heads, soon receiving a glowing testimonial for the "miraculous" improvements he had brought about in the space of just one term at a boys' school in St Albans.

Other headships followed. And then, in March 1959, he was hired by the London County Council to head a huge new comprehensive that would be opening the following year in one of the poorest parts of the capital. And so began the brief, tumultuous story of Risinghill.

It was, as Leila Berg would tell it, a project so flawed from the outset, so mired by politics and entangled in vested interests, that only a miracle could have saved it. And, sadly for Mr Duane and his 1,300 young charges, no such intervention was forthcoming.

For one thing, this reluctant emblem of the new comprehensive system was never really a comprehensive at all, in that around half of its intake was from the supposedly lowest ability group, with less than 1 per cent in the top banding (20 per cent from each of the five "intelligence grades" was the preferred mix).

And, for another thing, there was the manner in which this intake was admitted. For Risinghill was the result of a merger of two secondary moderns and two technical schools. The populations of these four schools were simply moved en bloc into the new premises, along with many of their staff and all their various rivalries, prejudices and resentments.

And the resentments were many, given that staff from single-sex schools were now forced to go co-ed, while their one-time heads were expected to serve under a man whose methods and expectations were, in many cases, dramatically different from their own. Controversially at a time when the caning and slippering of pupils for even minor misdemeanours was virtually universal practice, Michael Duane refused to allow any form of corporal punishment at his new school.

Nor was "sparing the rod" the end of it. For Duane's whole style of leadership was anathema to the disciplinarians of his day. Many was the more conventional head in those supposedly Swinging Sixties whose appearance in the playground would be accompanied by profound and trembling silence. But as all who witnessed it will testify, wherever Mr Duane went, he would be surrounded by pupils greeting him loudly.

It was not what Her Majesty's inspectors were used to seeing. But, by all accounts, compassion was the name of Mr Duane's game, and by talking endlessly and patiently rather than bellowing, thrashing and expelling, he seems gradually to have won the respect of even his rougher, tougher pupils.

To those close to Risinghill at the time, his sometimes extravagant acts of kindness became legendary. Many are recounted in Leila Berg's compelling and moving account; she lived nearby and, having read about the school in the papers, got to know Michael Duane well. No story seems to epitomise his approach more than the incident - one might almost call it a parable - of the stolen groceries. This is how, decades later, the writer recalled the event as part of her acceptance speech on receiving an honorary doctorate from Essex University.

"One day," she said, "two Risinghill boys were wandering in the local market and snatched a basket from an elderly lady out shopping and ran off with it. Because it was a true community school, and she was angry and upset, she went to Michael Duane.

"He instantly called a meeting of the whole school and told everyone what had happened. 'Her money has all gone, she had spent it on food for the whole family for the whole week and now she has no food; no money either.

The family has nothing to eat. You understand what that means. We must put it right. If the boys come around to my study right away, we can sort it out quickly.'

"The boys came, quite cheerfully. He said, 'What did you do with everything that was in the basket?' 'Ate it,' they said, as if it was obvious. 'Well, everything you could eat. Some things you couldn't - flour, cleaning stuff and that - so we chucked it in the road.'

"He said, 'Try to remember everything that was in the basket, absolutely everything, then go to the market and buy the whole lot again. Here's some money. Take all the stuff round to her and then, when you've made it right with her, and she is happy, come back to me and we'll work out how you can pay me back.'

"They did all that with gusto, brought him the change, and they paid him back in quite a short time, the two of them doing odd jobs. The police were never called in, nor psychologists, nor social workers, nor governors, not even parents. They sorted it out themselves. Everyone was content, cheerful, satisfied. That was empowering 12-year-olds."

Needless to say, this was all headline-grabbing stuff. Before long, Risinghill, with its lenient figurehead, had become a byword for classroom anarchy. Horror stories abounded, many of which, while known to have been fabricated by malcontents or exaggerated by journalists, are still quoted today. And with opponents of comprehensive education ever ready to pounce, lurid headlines were the last thing the authorities needed.

In less than five years, and despite passionate campaigning and lobbying of MPs by children and parents, the school was shut. These days the building houses a girls' comprehensive: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Although Michael Duane went on to work in teacher training, he was never again given a headship, despite applying for more than 200 posts.

And what of the pupils, once described in an article as "the waste clay of an experiment"; an experiment that, according to the official line, had gone horribly wrong? That is what Lynn Brady and Isabel Sheridan and the rest of the Risinghill research group are trying to find out.

Judging from the numerous questionnaires that have been returned, almost all emerged unscathed from what the press loved to describe as a blackboard jungle. Invariably, ex-pupils recall Michael Duane and many of his staff as inspiring and kind people who took a real interest in them. And, time and again, they acknowledge how their bright new comprehensive, with its prestigious engineering department, its library of 8,000 books and its emphasis on vocational skills, offered them previously undreamed-of experiences and opportunities (they recall school trips to Spain and Sadler's Wells).

What's more, it seems to have equipped them for successful and fulfilling lives. Isabel Sheridan left school with secretarial qualifications and went on to become a personnel administrator and office manager. She has raised a family, and has never been out of work, thanks, she says, to the skills she acquired at Risinghill.

She sees the forthcoming book (Leila Berg, now aged 88, has already written a foreword) as a means of achieving some justice for Michael Duane, to whose memory it will be dedicated. But she is also determined to set the record straight, both about the real reasons for the school's closure (at least one relevant file has been unaccountably mislaid over the years), and about the way the pupils were portrayed.

"I think we were over-sensationalised," she says. "Looking back, I suppose it was a very rough and run-down area, but we were loved and never went hungry. I don't think we perceived ourselves as being poor and deprived, and in the surveys we've done, there hasn't been an ex-pupil who did.

"Nevertheless, our education was severely disrupted by what happened. I think there was a very cavalier approach to us, and I think it was because we were perceived to be these poor, deprived no-hopers. Did the authority look at the moral implications of its actions? And what were the financial arguments? Certainly, the reasons given at the time don't make a great deal of sense to us."

Lynn Brady, who left school at 15 to work in an office, but who now works with children in care and recently gained a PhD at the age of 59, envisages the book giving more general lessons about the purpose of education.

"Parents and teachers - society as a whole, in fact - give kids such a hard time about qualifications," she says. "You're getting children now killing themselves and self-harming because of this fear that they'll be failures.

But we all managed and got through life. We've followed very different paths and done things in different ways, and been reasonably successful.

Some still work in the markets, some have ordinary jobs, and some run successful businesses. We've had children, most of us, and we're not in prison. The Government has this hang-up on proof and testing, but is there a better route? That's what we should think about."


Despite having seriously impaired hearing since childhood, Alan Foxall is now a senior electrical design engineer, thanks, he says, to Risinghill and to Michael Duane, "who saw something in me that others were trying to ignore".

As a co-founder of the Risinghill research group, Alan has taken on the job of tracking down ex-Risinghill teachers. "I have had a couple of successes, including the head of art, John Rogers, who now lives in France," he says.

"We would particularly like to contact Flora Melia, formerly Flora Rosenberg (she married Joe Melia, the actor), a very popular and good teacher, who we think lives somewhere in Primrose Hill, north London."

The group would also like to hear from the many Cypriots and ethnic minority ex-pupils at Risinghill, who are proving hard to track down.

For more details of the project, visit www.risinghill.co.uk, or email Alan Foxall at alan.foxall@btinternet.com

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