A lesson in tolerance from head of multilingual school

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The Independent Online

When the bell signals the end of the day at Featherstone primary in Southall, west London, pupils from 37 countries with 30 mother tongues leave for home under the watchful eye of the 63-year-old headteacher who has run the school for 23 years.

Gerry Curran, who started his teaching career in Catholic schools after leaving Northern Ireland in the 1960s, might seem an unusual champion for multicultural Britain but there are few with more authority to sing its praises.

Yesterday, as he received a lifetime achievement award as one of the country's outstanding teachers, Mr Curran stepped into the debate about growing Islamophobia by insisting on the right for his pupils to dress according to their religion and warning that faith schools risked deepening ethnic divisions.

The headteacher, whose school has 52 per cent of its pupils from a Muslim background and takes a quarter of its roll from newly arrived refugees and asylum-seekers, was praised by the judges of the Teaching Awards 2006 for creating what they described as "the most spiritual school in Britain".

The 600-pupil school and its headmaster have acted as a welcoming point for successive generations of immigration from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. Somalis now make up Featherstone's largest Muslim contingent, alongside pupils from Iran, Iraq and eastern Europe. The school caters for Sikhs, Hindus and Christians and also has up to 40 children from the traveller community at any one time.

The judges said that the pupils, occupying a brand new £7.5m building campaigned for by Mr Curran and others for 12 years, went out of their way to talk about the absence of racism and their interest in the faiths and backgrounds of their classmates.

Several parents visited the school yesterday to congratulate the headmaster personally after hearing of his award on television.

Mr Curran postponed his retirement this year to oversee Featherstone's transition from an unglamorous mishmash of Victorian buildings and temporary classrooms to its gleaming new home. He will step down next Easter instead.

Mr Curran, who counts more than a dozen teachers among his relations and describes teaching as "the family profession", said: "The challenge that faces a school like this is trying to form a single school community from this disparate group. We encourage the children to be proud of who they are and talk about it. They visit the different places of worship of their classmates.

"We epitomise what is good about a multicultural society. If we go further down the road of dividing up schools according to faith then we will not have that understanding. If we don't bring children together at that point when they can learn about each other then when else can we bring communities together?"

The headteacher, a practising Catholic who left his native Lurgan in 1964 and has spent 38 years teaching in London, said he was "worried" that the current debate over the wearing of veils by Muslim women was alienating an entire faith.

He said: "Our children are expected to wear the school's uniform and they are allowed to wear what their faith requires them. A lot of our children wear their hijab or Sikh bracelet. It is logical and part of their identity. We have got to be sensitive to the hurt when people turn around and seek to question that."

He said one of his happiest moments came last month when the new school was opened and created a suitable environment for his multi-ethnic institution. "It was a great moment to see the smiles on the faces of the children when they arrived to a school that had been designed for them." Mr Curran plans to use his retirement to travel with his wife to places including India and the Caribbean. He said: "I've experienced so many places and cultures second-hand through the school. Now it is time to see them at first hand."