Racial abuse can tear a school apart. Racial tension had long tipped over into running reprisals when Martin Nugent took up a post as a senior teacher in a secondary school in Stoke-on-Trent. Aggravation and aggression between white and Asian pupils was deep-seated, and Mr Nugent (pictured) knew his new job would be challenging; that was why he had gone for it. But nothing could have prepared him for the level of disorder he faced.
Pupils were settling their own feuds at Thistley Hough high in a way that undermined his ability to teach. White pupils mouthed abuse silently across the classroom to their Asian peers, who retaliated in explosive fashion.
Tables were turned over, chairs thrown. Gangs burst into classrooms to exact retribution on alleged aggressors, regardless of whether a teacher was present. Police were called as bottles and stones flew across the playground.
Martin Nugent, 34, had always prided himself on his lively and orderly lessons. Here, he felt his world was falling apart. He came to Thistley Hough after being head of an ICT department in a high-achieving school where all his pupils had passed GCSEs and A-levels. He had gained his national professional qualification for headship and, in a recent Ofsted, all his lessons had been deemed good or excellent. But in those first few weeks at Thistley Hough four years ago, he feared that his career would be finished; that he was defeated.
The crunch came when he was walking the corridors with another senior member of staff, and they came across a scuffle between white and Asian pupils. Girls as well as boys were embroiled. "As we approached them I must have said something like, 'What's going on here?', because an Asian girl gave me a mouthful of abuse that stopped me in my tracks. I knew that was not a natural response from her. I could have reacted with a 'How dare you say that to me!' style of retort, but I knew that such a knee-jerk, authoritarian approach would get us nowhere. I realised I had been way off track in the way I was trying to tackle such incidents. That girl was frightened, but also angry and frustrated. She was hitting back. We weren't providing an outlet for that anger, so pupils were providing it themselves.
"We gathered a group of Asian girls there and then and asked them what was really happening. They told us they were reacting to taunts, but because they were retaliating they were always the ones in trouble; the ones being put in detention and excluded. It was a way of life. It was cool to be racist in school; cool, acceptable and acted out on both sides.
"We had a wonderful behavioural and race relations policy at Thistley Hough, but teachers were getting bogged down in these aggressive retaliations, firefighting in their own corners. I couldn't work like that.
I knew I would have to build relationships, that I would have to get the children to help me."
Mr Nugent used to work in television as a production engineer and had sliced tens of thousands of pounds off his salary to go into teaching. He hadn't made such a sacrifice to end up defeated in this way.
He took up his post at the same time as a new head, Nigel Jobling, was appointed. With Karen Healey, the deputy, the three instigated zero tolerance of racial language. Phrases such as "Paki" or "white scum", which had become pervasive, almost casual between pupils, were no longer allowed to go unchallenged. An effective system for recording racial incidents was established. Staff were not allowed to talk about "the Asians", but to give names and places when reporting incidents. Pupils had to trust the school to deal with racial incidents properly, but this, says Mr Nugent, was not enough.
A get-tough policy without building relationships would only lead to other groups of pupils feeling victimised. Respectful relationships had to be established between pupils, and between staff and pupils. When dealing with issues of race as a teacher elsewhere in the Midlands, Mr Nugent had found it effective to ask students about their roots as a way of showing that we all have different backgrounds. But in Stoke, Mr Nugent met white families who had worked in the Potteries for generations, and whose children had low aspirations and a suspicion of outsiders. The British National Party is active in the area and has leafleted outside the school. The 10 per cent of Asian students who attend Thistley Hough come from one area of the inner city, and tended to stick together for fear of reprisals either in school or on the way home.
He decided to get the toughest, most troublesome pupils - Asian, white, black -and work with them and get them working together. In his teens, he'd been a champion breakdancer, and decided to resurrect his career with his students. "I knew I would have to do something with them that they would enjoy and where they would learn to respect each other."
The school had already set up an equal opportunities committee (EOC), a forum for pupils to discuss racial problems, and Bilal Mohammed, an Asian youth community worker who was already active in the school, was consulted to make this a more effective tool. At the same time, Mr Nugent started "Gener8", a performing arm of the EOC, in which a hand-picked group - "a cross-section of the toughest as well as some of the nicest kids" from all the racial groups -could breakdance together to their own raps.
Mr Nugent saw that there could be no short cut to building up relationships. He would have to put in the time. "You cannot just talk about respect to pupils. You have to do it with them yourself. You can have the best race policy ever on paper, but if you don't take the time to act on it, it's worth nothing. Working towards better relationships has taken up vast amounts of my time: dancing, producing videos, getting a DJ to work with these students. We have a laugh together. But more importantly, they have to relate to one another in order to make the productions work."
Asian girls, who are often discouraged from dancing in public by their families, produce and perform the raps that the boys move to; as a result, inter-racial boygirl relationships have also improved.
Mr Nugent has been supported by his head, who has spent time talking to parents from all communities, worked with the police and sought and received "fantastic" backing from race relations officials from Stoke local authority. Regeneration cash from the European Union has paid for transport to ensure pupils get home safely from such activities.
Race relations in the school have been transformed. It is no longer cool to be racist. During class it is the pupils who show disapproval at the first sign of abuse. Martin Nugent admits that racism is still widespread outside Thistley Hough, and poor behaviour in the school remains an issue for Ofsted, but racial tension has dramatically declined. He says he has not had to report an incident in the past two years.
But it has taken a lot of time and effort. "Teachers need to spend time outside the classroom being very hands-on, finding something to do with pupils that they enjoy and can share together. You could be a white male teacher putting on Bollywood films, you could bring a DJ in, as long as you are spending time being with them, chatting, laughing, talking things over.
I plan my lessons carefully, we tackle the curriculum at pace. I keep students busy, I don't allow time for misbehaviour. But it's the time spent with pupils outside the classroom that really makes a difference."
Friday magazine is offering every reader a free copy of Elaine Williams's TESsurvival guide, Managing Behaviour (worth pound;2.99). Simply collect eight of the 10 tokens that will be printed in Friday throughout our series. Details of how to obtain your copy will appear in a few weeks' time. You can find token six on page 3