Tales of the inner city...

5th January 2001 at 00:00
June Izbicki asks if inspectors and chief education officers have any idea of the reality of urban schooling and the effects of school closures

The sickening death of Damilola Taylor, almost on my doorstep, made me recall vividly some of the children with whom I was privileged to work at a failing (and finally closing) north London comprehensive a couple of years ago.

Did chief inspector Chris Woodhead or the education authority even begin to realise what they were doing when they closed such schools? So many of those children - inner-city, often disaffected pupils - could have hit the headlines as Damilola did.

The closest to Damilola in studious inclination was a Year 7 Nigerian boy of princely bearing who arrived one autumn morning accompanied by his "sister", a Year 8 already on roll, and "'brother", a Year 9 boy from the same family. His command of spoken English was weak, and hampered by a speech defect; written English was unknown to him.

Of course he was not their brother: he had no recorded date or place of birth and the other two were of African-Caribbean descent with a different last name.

That first morning he carried a beautiful calf-leather satchel; in two days it had gone, as had his quality clothing, snatched presumably by bullies.

He was a charmer though and I put him in the care of a brilliant special needs assistant, herself of mixed race, who rapidly became his substitute mother.

In under a year she had taught him to read at a seven-year-old level and he was starting to write quite fluently; his speech was improving, and he was about to get a statement of special needs that would ensure his continued support after the school closed.

But one day he arrived late and shame-faced. His explanation was worrying: he had had to wait till the post office opened to get child benefit to buy food for himself and his three younger "siblings".

It transpired that his "mother" had gone off to Nigeria with her own two children, leaving the 12-year-old in charge. On contacting social services I discovered that this woman was well-known to them but that they were powerless to deal with her. Still, they agreed to visit the house and, soon after, the children were taken into temporary care. The "mother" returned six weeks later and accused the school of causing trouble! The children were returned to her and nothing more was done.

Detective work conducted by myself, the school's education welfare officer and the (Nigerian) head of Year 7, revealed that she was running a profitable business, importing children of Nigerian familieson extended "holidays" and charging their families princely sums for a top-class Catholic education.

At least our boy got his basic education, and a statement to take him through the next few years; he learned to cope with London life, became a very good footballer, and began to master his speech defect. He went on to another Catholic school which is in special measures - and will close next summer. But he has got this far and I'm sure will survive.

Then I remembered the Year 9 Angolan twins and their disturbed Year 10 sister. I was at that time head of key stage 3 and struggling to find new school places for the most needy of our pupils.

One studious twin lost his hair during the summer term preceding closure. This may have been connected to the fact that his father, a political refugee coping alone with six children, had not managed to sign the new school application forms, so his children had fallen through the net.

Luckily the school nurse picked up this boy's alopecia and we were able to perform a quick rescue job.

The other twin, a bit of a rebel, fought any and everyone until he had made a visit to his new school and declared it to be "just OK".

However the closure affected the twins' Year 10 sister most of all, Deprived of her only security, she went off the rails, and ended up in care.

There she absconded regularly, taking other suggestible girls with her, and lived mainly on the streets, occasionally coming into school for lunch when she was hungry and down on her luck. Where is she now, I wonder?

Another unforgettable girl was a Rwandan refugee who had escaped with her sister, after both parents had been massacred. She was a living example of all the Christian values, and yet almost failed to get into her new Catholic school because she had no baptism or confirmation certificates!

These are not isolated cases; there are, sadly, many others.

So, do the grey-suited inspectors and chief education officers ever consider the real-life consequences of closing schools, such as mine, that were a sanctuary for so many youngsters?

Its mission statement - "We are all one in Christ Jesus" - was lived to the full by its staff.

Their earthly reward came from the late Cardinal Basil Hume at the school's final mass in July 1998. He said: "Never let anyone tell you, staff and pupils, that you have failed. It is society that has failed you." Perhaps their true reward will be in Heaven.

The author is a retired secondary school senior manager, and is now an education consultant specialising in failing schools.

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