Eye witness: How I was called back to the 'death threat' school

The headmaster would like to see you. David Randall returns to the troubled Glyn Technology School
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is not every day you wake to find your old school immortalised by the tabloids as the "death threat school". Still less often do you find yourself at the age of 51 waiting outside the headmaster's study for the summons from within.

It is not every day you wake to find your old school immortalised by the tabloids as the "death threat school". Still less often do you find yourself at the age of 51 waiting outside the headmaster's study for the summons from within.

But these are not normal times in education generally – and at what I once knew as Glyn Grammar School in particular. A teacher is subjected to more than 40 telephone death threats and a website making false allegations, two pupils are found responsible, the governors expel them, an appeal is lodged, a tribunal held and the boys reinstated. The teacher then goes sick with stress, his colleagues vote not to teach the miscreants, the ministry gets involved, uproar ensues – and there, at the eye of the storm, is my old school.

It is now called Glyn Technology School, but, as I enter its gates, it is still recognisably the place in Surrey I left more than three decades ago. There, up the short drive, is that standard 1920s municipal-issue building, its red brick looking almost venerable. On the edge of the north yard are the staff's cars, a nondescript collection now, unlike in the Sixties when you could see an Austin Healey 3000, a Jaguar, or a falling-to-bits camper van, all indicators of the eccentricity of the teachers.

There was "Killer" Curtis, to small boys the owner of the most fearsome falsetto in history, but, to his English sixth form, the guide to a whole solar system of culture; Dr Death (biology), whose face resembled a skull and who would randomly throw boys' pens and rulers out of the ever-open windows; the English master whose twisting of sideburns until your eyes watered might today earn him a custodial sentence; and an RE master whose sudden absence we put down to his claim to have bumped into the Virgin Mary on Epsom Common. We warmed to them or quietly resented them, but, to my knowledge, never planned to assassinate them.

Fifteen years ago, Stuart Turner arrived as head, and until last week he was calmly doing his job, collecting Ofsted thumbs-ups. But now, 200 yards from his office window, there are six TV vans, four radio cars and assorted journalists loitering with intent, his office is refusing incessant requests for interviews and, he tells me, at any moment Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education, could ring.

No sooner are we through the pleasantries and into the detail ("We've got 1,200 boys here now, a 99 per cent pass rate at A-level, pretty much all the sixth form go to university and we get eight or nine to Oxbridge"), when the phone rings. "Yes – right – OK, love." The call ends. "That," he says, "was not Estelle Morris." Back to the nitty gritty. "We exclude about one pupil a year, mostly for repeated disruption or aggressiveness. In most cases the parents accept the process, arrangements are made for the boy to go to another school and everyone moves on."

But that didn't happen in the present case. The parents appealed, and in early September Surrey County Council convened a panel of three to hear the case and duly decided that the apprentice hitmen should be reinstated. It was at this point that events started to escalate.

"The staff made their feelings known that they were not prepared to teach these boys," says Mr Turner. And it was now, too, that the teacher concerned, PE master Steve Taverner, went on sick leave. "He said: 'I can't possibly come back because these boys will be around and others might take on the attitude: if they can do it and get away with it, why can't we?'"

So he stayed away, the boys returned and were taught by a supply teacher, staff began balloting for industrial action and the local MP, Chris Grayling, got involved. Thus the ingredients for the current cause célèbre fell into place.

The phone rings again. It is Steve Taverner. Lots of "How are you?", lots of listening and a promise to "have a jar next week". If Mr Turner has any regrets about how he handled the matter, they don't show, even when I ask if he involved parents in pre-exclusion discussions, as would be usual.

"No, I didn't," he says. "The matter was so clear-cut. The boys had admitted making these calls, and so, given the guidelines, it was not necessary to see the parents." The boys, he says, "are bright, they were not disrupters in class", but what they did was a clear case of "serious threatened violence against a member of staff". And, if other voices here are to be believed, this was not the first time they had used threats.

The governors are gathering for a meeting. I'm allowed to wander the painted brick corridors of the main building, opening doors and finding that my past of shiny maps on walls and bunsen burners on wooden benches exists only in my mind. A sudden sound of mass movement signals the end of a period, and boys migrate to the next lesson like flocks of starlings. No one runs, no one shouts.

Back to say farewells. Estelle Morris has rung. A 15-minute call: pledge of support, hope things settle down, doing all we can. And being a modern headmaster, Mr Turner asks her for a bigger budget.

I leave, and turn into Snakey Alley, where we used to run cross-countries. This was the school I entered from a home that possessed four books and left, seven years later, for Cambridge. Hard to think of it as a "death threat school".

Comments