Tales of the unexpected

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
School may be the only way forward for inner-city pupils. But human costs can be high, says Michael Fox. Heads today are more like managing directors. I control a budget of Pounds 1.7m, and am responsible for many more functions than traditional heads. This all takes time. Solihull, where I work, is a small local authority; most of the 13 secondary heads serve on various committees, and there is a steady flow of meetings. I am also a JP in Warwickshire. I do still teach, though very little.

But let me just describe a recent Monday. It started calmly enough. For once my diary was clear and, as I do not teach on Mondays, I hoped to tackle three tasks: dealing with the new cleaning contract; summarising two lengthy documents for circulating to staff; pruning a further few thousand pounds from our planned spending.

I have an open-door policy which, on the whole, the staff do not abuse. A colleague came in to ask about the formal statement of special educational needs for a new pupil. A few minutes later, my director of pastoral care came to tell me that on Friday, when our school had been closed for staff training and I had been sitting in court, three pupils had gone into the nearby city technology college and threatened a teacher. One pupil had been armed with a hammer, another with a spanner. The police had been informed. I telephoned the principal to apologise on behalf of the school.

The cleaning contract was worrying, as the lowest tender was more than 20 per cent more than we were currently paying. I notified the successful firm, and drafted a letter to the others.

Then the director of pastoral care returned: there had been a near-riot on the local estate. A gang of about 30 pupils, most aged 13 or 14, rushed out just as morning break was starting. Their leader, a girl, was chasing another girl to fight her. Some residents were abusive to staff who went out to deal with the trouble.

Eventually the gang piled into a shop, where the shopkeeper tried to protect the victim. Even so, the leader managed to land several punches on her. The staff got the pupils back into a room in school.

I spoke to the pupils, emphasising my disgust at their behaviour; that I would suspend the ringleader and give an hour's detention to the rest. This one incident, lasting a few minutes, had undone months of work in trying to maintain the school's reputation.

I spoke with the head of year, and decided to exclude the ringleader for a fortnight. I wrote to all the parents. The head of year telephoned the victim's family, then the assailant's mother. The director of pastoral care would visit the shopkeeper. We arranged a special year meeting for early that afternoon.

Then two boys turned up to see me. They had been truanting and, after wandering around for a time, had gone back home. Their father was in, and had sent them straight to school, asking that I telephone him to let him know they had arrived, I did so, put them on report, and referred them to their year heads.

The year meeting is held with rigid discipline. Three of us speak in turn, and the pupils go back to lessons subdued. I am about to see the ringleader before sending her home, when I hear that the victim's mother has turned up with her older daughter. I see her immediately. She, aggressive, tells me she is going to the police, and will tell the media that we do not protect children from violence. We talk for perhaps half an hour.

I encourage her to go to the police - my powers are quite limited, and assault is a crime. In the end, she is satisfied with what has been done. After she leaves I talk to the assailant. She is quiet and polite, and says she is sorry; but I wonder how long this will last after she leaves.

My secretary takes a message that six intruders, skinheads, are walking through the science department. Two colleagues go to send them off. Two groups of youngsters who were involved in the morning's incident come to see me to apologise.

Finally, one of the staff tells me that she is pregnant. We now have four staff pregnancies. It is the end of the day: I have done just one of my planned tasks.

Days like this are rare, but fairly often something unexpected happens.

No doubt you are wondering what kind of school this is. Smith's Wood School is a neighbourhood comprehensive with about 730 pupils aged 11 to 16. Our pupils are predominantly white working-class. Most come from a large municipal housing estate built to rehouse families from inner-Birmingham.There is little local employment and few social facilities.

More than 40 per cent of the pupils are entitled to free meals, and about the same proportion come from one-parent or broken families. More than half the pupils starting here are two or more years behind in their reading ability; fewer than 10 per cent are above the national average. To educate them, and pay for all our running costs, we have just under Pounds 2,250 per pupil each year. We spend more and use up reserves, but within the next few years we will have cut our resources . . . or our teaching force.

I believe in the need for sound discipline as a prerequisite for successful learning. We are traditional enough to have a simple uniform and prefects who do duties. Most pupils are amenable and pleasant, perhaps lacking certain social graces, but reasonably self-assured. However, some come from violent or criminal homes, where they are taught that violence is the answer to any problem.

Some have been abused physically or sexually: for them the school is a safe haven. We have a strong pastoral system, and devote much time to welfare. We are known among professionals for doing good work with some very difficult and disturbed youngsters. Visitors often comment on the air of purposeful work in the school.

Most parents support what we stand for. However, some others see us as convenient child-minders; a few are anti-school. Those who themselves did badly at school can be the most difficult to deal with. I have almost lost count of those key staff who have suffered long illnesses aggravated by stress, or who have retired early. Yet it can be a rewarding job. I believe there is a real danger that areas such as this could become economic ghettos. There are families where no adult has had a job for many years and despair has set in.

Education is one way of giving any form of hope. When a youngster who came to us scarcely able to read leaves with a job to go to, it is success. If pupils can use their education to improve that society, rather than simply as a means of leaving it behind, it is success.

League tables of examination results seem irrelevant, but it is still galling to be constantly at the bottom. However, our GCSE results have gone from 6 per cent of pupils obtaining five or more good grades in 1993, to 12 per cent in 1995.

Standards of work in some subjects compare well with those anywhere. We have sporting and musical successes - our steel band has won the top prizes in several national competitions. Even so, I shall be retiring while I am still in control of the school . . . and before it takes control of me.

Michael Fox is head of Smith's Wood School, Solihull. This article is one of six views of headship, published in the current issue of Cambridge, the magazine of The Cambridge Society

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