Working by their sides

21st April 2006 at 01:00
Being a head is about making a personal connection with young people.

Di Beddow remembers the man who gave her boys a sense of purpose

As far as I know George Kent did not receive the notice of the media and society that his brother, Bruce, gained through his involvement with CND and anti-war protest. George died on March 9. He was 78 and had been the first head at St Bede's comprehensive in Cambridge until 1983, when he retired aged 55.

My reason for writing is that George was the symbol for me of what every good head should be, even in this time of league tables and directorship and NPQH. Few people can match his worth. When my husband left home three years ago and my two boys were struggling with an absent father and a mother who found it difficult to cook a meal, never mind hold down a job as a deputy in a village college, there was little opportunity for them both to gain the much needed direction and guidance required for adolescence, exams and growing up.

Both Joe and Bill strayed from the traditional path set out for them at their school of planners, homework and good behaviour. Growing up in a close, parochial village meant that what was happening behind our front door leaked into their school life and then into the community. I will never know if George heard of their misdemeanours, or if he was contacted by some well-meaning member of staff or Connexions adviser. All I do know is that Billy was halted on his paper round one day and asked by George if he needed some work. Billy came home with an appointment time when George would call to see me to discuss working arrangements.

George arrived one Saturday morning. I was in my dressing gown, still suffering from the after-effects of trying to forget the loss of my husband on a Friday night. Yes, he would have coffee, and we all sat at the dining room table while George set out the principles of "Girton Youth Works"

(George had lived in Girton since 1961, and when he retired he worked with Girton Parish Council, organising young people to help with gardening in the village). Joe, being older, would work on a Saturday morning on the footpaths, Millennium garden and graveyard of the village; Bill, being younger, would come on a Sunday morning, for an hour, and clip hedges and clean cars and brasses at George's own house down the road. For this they would each receive pound;5 per hour.

Joe was at risk of exclusion from his school and Billy was often an absentee. Each weekend, the boys went out to work. Joe came back with torn hands from thistles and brambles, but with pound;10 in his pocket and stories to tell. George had dug alongside him in the graveyard, telling him Girton's history, and had not queried his "fag break". Joe gained valuable horticultural knowledge from his work and began to enjoy the outside air as opposed to the cannabis-infused atmosphere of a friend's car. Bill returned on a Sunday morning, full of the delights of the products of George's Sodastream machine. George was firm, but like every good teacher, fair.

When they forgot to tell him that they could not make work, he docked their money and was irate at their lack of responsibility.

Over time, George wrote a reference for Joe for his college application and I began to see in my tearaway son a young man who could work hard, mentor newcomers and take responsibility for his actions. Bill, meanwhile, was able to tell me that I had put oil in the wrong aperture of the lawnmower and that was why it choked, belched black smoke and died.

I do not know whether he would have met the headteacher's professional standards, nor whether he balanced St Bede's budget according to Ofsted good practice guidelines. I simply know that in a time of desperate need for my two young people, George Kent stepped in, modelled for them a better way of contributing to the community and gave them back their self-confidence, empathy with others less fortunate than themselves and a set of guiding principles for the future.

Di Beddow is deputy head of Bassingbourn village college, Cambridgeshire

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