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School CP - March 2004
Evening Standard, London, 8 March 2004
I taught at the worst sink school in Britain
A new book by a teacher paints a shocking picture of a London school before it was transformed
By Alison Roberts
FRANCIS Gilbert describes himself matter-of-factly as a man who has "mastered the art of terrifying small children". "There are techniques you learn," he explains. "The first impression is really important. You walk into a classroom for the first time and you pick on some poor child who's maybe a little bit rowdy, and then you shout the hell out of them." He pulls an apologetic face. "We're very primitive creatures at heart and that sort of behaviour frightens very young children.
They remember it for at least the rest of the term."
Gilbert stresses that this is not a technique he uses very often nowadays, as the 36-year-old head of the English department at a high-achieving school in Upminster, Essex. Instead it was developed and most frequently employed during two and a half years of teaching in an east London sink school, which was then, by results, officially the worst secondary school in the country.
"One of the teachers used to call us Millwall FC," says Gilbert. "We might have been bottom of the league - but we were hard."
Now he has written a book about the time he spent at the Sir John Cass Foundation and Red Coat Church of England Secondary School in the heart of Stepney, and despite its humorous tone and title - I'm a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here! - there is no disguising the essential bleakness of its contents.
Nor its implicit assault on a centrally-controlled education system that "dehumanises" both teaching and learning.
For people with no direct experience of inner-London schools, Gilbert's book reads like a memoir from a war zone.
Almost all of the Stepney pupils live in dire poverty in rundown tenement blocks and neglected council estates; some of the boys are members of violent gangs, and up to 40 per cent do not speak English as a first language.
"When I taught there in the early 1990s," he says, "88 per cent of the kids were Bengali and living with real social deprivation. In my tutor group there was only one child who wasn't on free school meals. Some of them didn't have socks.
One 11-year-old girl came from a huge family and slept in a drawer instead of a bed. In a lot of cases these children had terrible, terrible lives."
He cites a parents' evening at which one father told him how he would punish his son if he caused trouble at school.
"He said he would put the boy in a bath, place bricks on top of him and then turn on the taps. Of course, after that I told him his son was perfectly behaved."
Gilbert was hired fresh out of training as an ESL (English as a second language) teacher, but by far the most pressing of his duties was simply to control the kids' behaviour. On the worst occasion, having lost not only the attention of a class of 13- and 14-year-olds but also their collective respect, the children lit up cigarettes in the middle of a lesson and then moved all the furniture out of the classroom while Gilbert stood there shouting at the top of his voice. "The desks, the chairs, the board rubber, the textbooks and English folders sailed out of the room on the inexorable tide and ricocheted into the corridor," he writes.
WHAT on earth do you do in a situation like that?
"Not much, at the time," he admits. "I went home that night and felt like I'd been hit over the head by a hammer. It was so incredibly humiliating, but the school was actually quite nice to me afterwards. A senior member of staff with a really hard reputation made it clear to the kids that I had his support, which made a big impression in terms of how they viewed me."
In his book Gilbert describes this teacher's tactics. "You are scum and I don't like scum," he tells the children.
"You behaved like scum yesterday and I am sickened by it. Don't you ever, ever, do it again. Is that clear?"
"They knew I wasn't a soft touch after that," says Gilbert. "You see, it might have been terrible in terms of results but it wasn't a bad school."
Is he serious? "Much, much worse things happen at schools in inner London.
I've a friend who works at Highbury Grove who tells me that the kids there have set fire to the dustbins and thrown them out of the classroom windows.
Teacher friends of mine who've read the book think it's quite mild compared with what happens elsewhere.
"The difference between a good school and a bad school in situations like that is that a good school will admit that something has gone wrong and deal with it, which is what happened in Stepney. In a bad school, the senior management will blame the individual teacher and bury their heads in the sand. Lots of people don't know what really goes on in inner-city schools because there aren't many teachers who are willing to tell the truth about it."
The discipline problem at Sir John Cass was partly solved by the threat of corporal punishment. One teacher in particular - the one with the "really hard reputation" - was granted permission by many of the Bengali parents to beat their children, and as a last resort some of the kids were indeed beaten.
"You find that Bengali parents view teachers as figures of authority where white parents don't," says Gilbert.
This was, however, strictly against the 1987 law that prohibits corporal punishment in state schools under any circumstances.
By his own rather sheepish admission, Francis Gilbert went into teaching thinking that he could change the world.
Now married to the literary editor of The Times newspaper, Erica Wagner, and the father of a three-year-old son, he grew up in suburban, middleclass Wanstead, but describes his childhood as "fractured", partly owing to his parents' divorce. "I think that going into teaching, at least initially, was me wanting to give a kind of love and attention and care that I never got."
He was educated privately and found that school gave him a "sense of selfworth" that he hoped to pass on as a teacher himself. As a youth studying for his teacher training certificate at Cambridge, he was also a "militant Marxist with hair down to my waist".
"I thought that education was a force for social revolution. Really. I did.
It sounds incredibly naive, but that's what I believed."
It's a cartoonish stereotype: the far-Left student who decides that teaching in an inner-city school can save not only his own soul, but those of the kids too. "You have to be a bit of a rebel yourself to teach in a school like that," he agrees.
"You're dealing with the poorest kids, the outcasts of society who no one else wants to deal with."
Many of his fellow staff-members were similarly idealistic, at least at first.
Indeed, from the layperson's point of view, self-sacrificing idealism seems like an essential qualification for the job.
"There are some really amazing teachers who work in inner London," says Gilbert.
"Men and women who really believe in making a difference. And then there are the teachers who have got trapped working in those schools and can't move on.
There are the do-gooders - I put them in a different category from the idealists - and then ... (he pauses and grimaces) "well, there are also some teachers who are just basically not very good. I'll get shot for that - but it's true."
GILBERT thinks that I'm easily shocked, but there are elements of his tale - details mentioned in passing in his book - that genuinely stun me. None of the kids at Sir John Cass ever did any homework, for example, because "if you let a kid take a textbook home it would never come back". "Organisational skills weren't their strongest point," he adds.
The teaching of Shakespeare at GCSE level was often reduced to the level of mere storytelling and only on rare occasions would a class read a whole play through. "The syllabus requires you to read a play in its original form, but there are ways around that." Again he pauses and pulls a rueful face. "You can watch a film for example."
Kids who had just come from Bangladesh and were learning to speak and read English were taught, crazily, in the same classrooms as the pupils studying for exams. "A classic example," says Gilbert, "of a centrally issued diktat that closed down the separate ESL units and put the kids into mainstream classrooms.
Whether that works or not, it should be up to the school to decide how to teach, not a matter for Whitehall bureaucrats."
As a result, Gilbert found himself teaching Macbeth to non-English speakers using comic strips he drew himself.
The Bengali girls in particular - many of whom wore headscarves - got a "really terrible deal" at the school, says Gilbert. He uses words like "meek" and "cowering" to describe them. Subservient at home, they were often unintentionally ignored by teachers who had their hands full dealing with the myriad problems of the boys' poor behaviour and the lack of English as a first language.
After two years at the school, Gilbert began to worry that he would get stuck in the East End, and after frantically applying for other jobs, eventually moved on to London's greener, richer suburbs. Shortly after his departure, a change in senior management began to turn the school around. It was designated a Specialist Language College; exam results picked up dramatically; and in 2002 it was named the most improved school in the country - from a low point at which just five per cent of children achieved AC grades at GCSE to a high of 69 per cent.
This is an extraordinary achievement given the poverty and social insularity of the principal catchment area and the fact that, today, roughly half the pupils don't speak English as their first language. In the book Gilbert gives credit to the new headmaster, Haydn Evans, for improving discipline and to the staff for their obvious dedication, but also implies that a certain amount of clever statistical manipulation - encouraging kids to study for vocational courses that are counted as GCSEs but aren't examined in the same way, for example - helped to massage the figures. "And who can blame the headmaster for that?" he asks.
Gilbert's views have changed radically, too, since his Marxist student days.
Secondary schools in London, he says, have become so big, they dehumanise the kids they're trying to educate.
He still lives in the East End, but he's adamant that he would not send his own son to an inner-London school. "I did my best in Stepney," he says, "and I still believe we did good things there. But I'm not sure that kind of environment would be best for my child."
Many ethnic minority parents feel the same way and those who can afford it are also choosing to opt out of the state system. If Sir John Cass has shown significant improvement, children across inner-London are still, it seems, getting an extremely raw deal from the education system.
I'm a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here! is published by Short Books, price £9.99.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Solo Syndication Limited
Birmingham Post, 31 March 2004
Bishop: Black children fail for want of discipline
Afro-Caribbean children may be failing academically because school teachers are prevented from administering corporal punishment, a leading minister has claimed.
© 2004 Independent Newspapers (UK) Limited.
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