Award-winning headteacher Norma Redfearn has helped regenerate a community devastated by the loss of its livelihood. Reva Klein reports
Being in the presence of Norma Redfearn is a strange experience. She's warm and welcoming, but you can't help feeling that beneath her very calm exterior the wheels are whirring away nineteen to the dozen.
She is the first headteacher to receive the prize for Public Management Leadership, awarded to her by the Office for Public Management in 1997. Hot on the heels of that award, she was chosen by the think-tank Demos to serve as an example of civic entrepreneurship.
The daughter of a shipyard worker who left school at 14, Norma Redfearn became the first person in her family to go to university (a BPhil at Newcastle). Formerly a single parent, now a grandmother of two, she deserves the accolades bestowed upon her for a very good reason: she has not only turned around a primary school that had sunk as far as they go, but has also triggered the regeneration of a community that was demoralised, depressed and desperate.
Her school, West Walker primary, is in the east end of Newcastle, near where she was born. Situated on the riverfront, it's in a neighbourhood that once saw 12,000 men, including her father, troop off to work at the naval shipyards every morning.
Then, in the early 1980s, the yards closed and the men lost their jobs, their self-esteem, their identities, their aspirations. And their despair took on epidemic proportions, spreading like wildfire to their wives and children.
Norma Redfearn inherited this community when she became headteacher of the school in 1986 after a deputy headship at nearby Wharrier Street juniors.
"My feeling when I came here was that here were parents who had nothing to look forward to in their lives. They didn't value the learning process because it hadn't benefited them, and their attitude to the school was very negative. I realised that I had to work with the parents if I was to change the attitudes of the children so that they could begin to learn."
She recalls children coming to her and saying "What's the point of learning when there's no jobs, me ma says." The children, 70 per cent of whom are on free school meals, were not only not learning: many weren't showing up for school at all.
Out of 18 classrooms, only a third were in use. Those who did attend would roll in at 10 in the morning or later, many without having eaten anything since the night before. "How can you get children to learn anything when they come in hungry and unhappy because their mother's been knocked around the night before?" She felt that the community needed a focus and set about creating one based at the school. In informal and formal meetings with parents, some with staff and governors, the needs of local people were identified, dissatisfactions with the school were aired and those Redfearn wheels started swinging into action.
First, a playpark was built where there once stood a barren, joyless scrap of playground. It was a joint effort, bringing together professionals from the Newcastle Architectural Workshop with parents and children.
Next, plans were made to transform empty classrooms into a community wing, where parents could attend adult education classes during school hours.
"There was a lot of resistance to it from the local education authority," she says. The LEA said that parents could attend the further education college courses if they wanted to study. "These were people who wouldn't cross the main road. It was important that the classes were offered here, in their own neighbourhood."
Nearly 18 months later, and thanks largely to local councillors - including her chair of governors - the community wing was given the go-ahead. Parents attend classes in basic skills and take courses that will qualify them to be classroom assistants at the school. One parent has gone on to university to do a social work degree.
The community wing also contains a cafe for parents, a free breakfast club for about 40 children a morning, a community library for parents, a computer room and an urban park warden based at the school who provides nature classes for West Walker and other schools in the area.
Redfearn has recently won a 10-year battle to get a full-time social services family support worker based at the school. "Families wouldn't go to see her at social services," Norma explains. "It's like going to the police. But because she's here, she can help to prevent serious things from happening because people can see her straight away."
Her next project, for which she is in consultation with the health authority, is getting a counsellor situated at the school for parents and children. Although not remotely trendy, Norma Redfearn has achieved what other educationists talk about at conferences as models for the future. She has created a holistic education programme that has brought life, hope and energy back into a devastated community.
"The children running around causing mayhem out there are children who've failed in primary schools. Isn't it time we stopped laying the blame on them and their families and started asking why they aren't achieving and why they aren't attending school? I think that's what we've done. And we've tried to answer the problems we've found."
And just for the record, her pupils' test results are improving yearly, with maths and science almost up to the national average.