Mark Whitehead talks to sacked head Chris Searle and examines the issues generated by the case.
A row is brewing in the north of England which highlights questions over standards, parental choice and governors' powers and which could turn into a confrontation between the local authority and the black community.
At its centre is a figure who first courted controversy in the early 1970s. Then Chris Searle was the young probationary teacher sacked from his east London school after he published a tell-it-like-it-is anthology of pupils' poems. Today he is out in the cold again.
He was sacked as head of Earl Marshal comprehensive in Sheffield at the end of last term - a full term before he was due to take early retirement, accused of poor management and failure to respond to criticisms by Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools. Labour-controlled Sheffield City Council has also stripped the Earl Marshal governors of their staffing and financial powers.
David Waxman, the council's acting director of education, says Mr Searle and the governors were not acting quickly enough to implement an action plan drawn up last year after a poor HMI report. The school was also facing a financial crisis because the governors had failed to cut staff. "We didn't think we could wait any longer," says Mr Waxman. "It was not in the interests of the children to let things go on as they were for another term."
The council's approach has enraged the governors, many of them from ethnic minority groups. "We are very shocked and angry," says Mike Atkins, a governor and former head of Sheffield's race equality unit. "It was an insult to the black community. There was no discussion with us. There was never any criticism of what we were doing to implement the action plan and we had already decided to reduce the staff at Easter and in the summer.
"We felt it was a political initiative to curb our powers as black governors. "
Mr Searle, now 51, is still a zealous socialist and an education progressive. After being reinstated at his Stepney school in 1973 he taught in Mozambique and Grenada, then became Sheffield's multicultural adviser for six years. In 1990 he took up the post at Earl Marshal, his first headship.
He feels that he is the victim of the new political climate under which Labour has prioritised standards and exam results. David Blunkett, opposition education spokesman and MP for the Brightside constituency in which many pupils live, asked the city council early last year to remove Mr Searle.
The MP, who was urged on by members of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers at Earl Marshal, said: "I want the children in my area to have the same life chances as they would if they lived in the leafy suburbs of Sheffield or any other part of Britain. I will always demand action where a school is clearly failing its pupils."
Some local observers believe Mr Blunkett's involvement was decisive, and see it as an inevitable result of the focus on standards in the run-up to the general election. "No doubt as previous leader of Sheffield City Council and Labour education spokesman, David Blunkett felt that having a failed school in his city would be used as ammunition by the Conservatives," one said.
Problems at Earl Marshal stem from its poor performance in the Government's exam league tables. Last year only 6 per cent of pupils gained five or more A-C grade GCSEs. But the main issue for the NASUWT members - more than half the 50 staff - was Mr Searle's policy of refusing to expel disruptive pupils. "He seemed to think everybody was good and there were no real bad people about, " said one senior teacher. "We never felt he dealt effectively with problem youngsters. We never got backing from him."
Mr Searle has made many temporary exclusions in his five years at Earl Marshal, but will not exclude pupils permanently. "There is an army of young people, many of them black, being propelled out of schools and straight to the bottom of British society," he says. "As an inner-city educator I can't accept that." Good teachers, he says, see difficult pupils as a challenge.
He accepts that Earl Marshal's examination results were poor, but points out that they improved in his first two years as head. Soon after his arrival, he also campaigned successfully to save the school from closure and to stem an exodus of pupils. It must be remembered, he adds, that more than two-thirds of his pupils speak English as a second language.
Mr Searle claims his progressive, child-centred approach achieves better results - including better exam grades - than more traditional methods. He makes much of the school's "internationalist" character, which focuses on pupils' cultural identity and language skills. He insists that the national curriculum was being taught at Earl Marshal but says the school was going beyond it, taking in black perspectives and the concept of "critical literacy". Motivation is the central issue for him. "How does what you teach and how you teach relate to young people? How can you enable it to be grasped by them as useful and relevant knowledge?" To many of his critics, though, this is all so much 1960s' nonsense. "The core business of the school should be the national curriculum, but it wasn't being delivered," says David Batty, secretary of the Sheffield NASUWT branch.
Viv Nicholson, chair of Sheffield's education committee, accepts that Mr Searle did a lot of good work and had strong support from parents and in the local community. But her conclusion was that the school was failing its pupils. "Chris built up some very harmonious relationships," she says, "but ethnic-minority children have a harder time than others getting jobs. We can't allow ourselves to fail them by not preparing them for life in Sheffield. I accept that what we have done may not be popular but we had to give pupils the chance to do their best."
The governors, who were due to meet last night, are considering mass resignation, but may decide to stay in post and fight their corner. They are setting up an action committee and taking legal advice. There is potential for a test case about parent and governor power. Whether the city council will pay for what may turn out to be a tactical blunder remains to be seen.
Its immediate task is to tackle the school's over-staffing. Three teaching posts are likely to vanish at Easter, followed by more in the summer. Pupil numbers, which rose after Mr Searle's appointment, are in decline again.
If Mr Searle does end up reliving the battles of his youth, he will have plenty of support. Alisa Bi, a 19-year-old who passed five GCSEs at Earl Marshal and is now studying health and social work at The Sheffield College Stradbroke centre, says he was an extremely popular head, especially among Asian and black pupils. "Some of the teachers used to help the white kids and we were left to ourselves because they thought we couldn't cope. But if you complained to Mr Searle he would talk to the teacher and help you get on. It was a good school and he was brilliant."
Governor Mike Atkins echoes this view: "When he arrived we felt that, at last, here was someone prepared to tackle the issue of under-achievement among black youngsters. If ever there was a head who cared about results and achievement, it was Chris."