From ska to skool

5th October 2007 at 01:00
Horace Panter, pop star and adrenalin junkie, swapped the charts for the classroom. Sheryl Simms talks to him

The late 1970s was an exciting time for the British music scene. The Specials, a Coventry-based band, came out of the musical stable known as Two Tone, a hybrid of punk, ska and reggae. Some 30 years later, Horace Panter, founder member and bass guitarist, is a special needs teacher and even though this may seem a far cry from his rock 'n' roll years, teaching, he says, does have a few similarities.

"There is an adrenalin rush. I am still performing. I have to sell myself and my subject to the children. Working with professional musicians for 20-odd years was a good training ground for working with children. There's little difference between the two," he says.

A born performer, there was never any question that Horace would one day be a musician. It was while studying for an arts degree at Lanchester Polytechnic, later part of Coventry University, that he first made contact with Jerry Dammers, and together they set about forming the Specials.

"Becoming a teacher was not a consideration at the time," says Horace. "If the band hadn't been born, I still would have been a musician."

Armed with a bass guitar bought with a pound;175 inheritance from his uncle Charlie, Horace's pop career took off in 1977.

"My life in the Specials was hectic, claustrophobic and very exciting to start off with and then it became hectic, claustrophobic and not very exciting.

"We didn't live lavish lifestyles. We didn't drive in a limo every day of the week. We made enough to live on, but no one, as far as I know, had ever bought a brand new car. A few of us were able to get mortgages, but it was not like we were able to afford summer houses in Tuscany and apartments in Manhattan."

The band split up in 1981 "it was quite painful towards the end. We all became very cynical. We worked very hard and had spent very little time away from one another" and for a while his love affair with the life of a musician ran aground. "Once the band broke up, the first thing I wanted to do was to burn my two tone suit. I wanted to get out of music for a while. I had recently got married and my wife had opened a punk rock shop, so I helped her run that."

It wasn't long before Horace was playing in bands again, first General Public and then Specialbeat, but the idea of becoming a teacher was never far from his mind. "I kept thinking, I can't do this for ever. I was tired of being 25 for the 19th year running."

This desire was strengthened by his regular sessions volunteering as classroom helper at his son's school. "I saw how the teacher managed somehow to get 30 disparate little five-year-olds doing the same thing and I thought, this is fantastic."

Horace finally embarked on a PGCE at Birmingham Polytechnic (now the University of Central England in Birmingham) and qualified as a primary school teacher in 1993 12 years after the original Specials disbanded.

"I had this fine arts degree which had been laying fallow since 1975 and it seemed like a good time to use it and get the real job my parents always wanted me to do."

His first job, working for the home tuition services in Coventry, proved to be quite challenging. "I call it the Rambo end of the teaching profession. I worked with secondary children who had been excluded from school. I'd go round to their homes and teach them on a one-to-one basis and try to make order out of chaos."

For the past nine years, working as the art teacher at the Corley Centre, a special needs school for 11 to 19-year-olds in Coventry, has provided Horace with the excitement and stimulation he had grown accustomed to during his time in a pop band.

"I don't have a drug habit from being a musician, I have an adrenalin habit and the teaching definitely feeds it. My main role is to increase self-esteem, self-confidence and give the children a sense of self worth. I like to identify with all of them."

Horace had been taken on at the centre as an educational assistant to a boy who had been reinstated after he was expelled. He had built up a relationship with the boy during his stint in the home tuition service.

"We were taken on as a package," says Horace. "The school then discovered I had a degree in fine art; the person who taught art was really the PE teacher and had only taken the job on because nobody else would do it. So I was offered the post."

Horace says show business has helped him interact positively with his charges. "This is how I've made a successful transition from being a professional musician to being a teacher. You have an audience, an introduction, a middle bit and the grand finale. Proper teachers would call it classroom management.

"I like to think I do unconventional things in the classroom. I always get somebody to tell a joke."

As much as Horace loves teaching, at weekends he can be found in local bars and pubs where he plays with a small blues band.

"I find it hard not to play. My time in the Specials gave me the confidence to be myself. I always wanted me-shaped work and at the moment I have the second best job in the world, which is being a teacher. The first is being in a pop group. So I consider myself very fortunate indeed."

Ska'd For Life: A Personal Journey with the Specials by Horace Panter is published by Pan Macmillan (pound;17.99)

The Specials

* In 1977, Jerry Dammers, Lynval Golding and Horace Panter, also known as Sir Horace the Gentleman Panter, formed The Automatics. * The following year, they were joined by Roddy Radiation, Terry Hall and Neville Staple and changed their name to Special AKA, then the Specials.* Their first Top Ten hit was Gangsters, which reached number six in 1979, and the following year they had their first number one, Too Much Too Young, despite criticism of the song's lyrics, which promoted contraception. * The band had their second number one, Ghost Town, in 1981, but broke up shortly afterwards.*

Terry, Neville and Lynval went on to form Fun Boy Three, who had hits with Tunnel of Love and The Lunatics (Have Taken over the Asylum). Jerry became a noted anti-apartheid campaigner, writing the song Free Nelson Mandela and organising the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute concert at Wembley in 1988.

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