Policing the pupils

Having a Pc in school is one of the novel ways that a London comprehensive is turning itself around, says Richard Garner
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The Independent Online

It was, the staff acknowledged, a bold experiment. Two rival gangs from a school in London Docklands were taken to Belfast for a week to learn how conflicts could take hold of a community. But that was only the beginning of it. The gangs were made to live together in a Big Brother-style house where they couldn't escape each other's company. Two ringleaders had to share a room for seven days.

It was, the staff acknowledged, a bold experiment. Two rival gangs from a school in London Docklands were taken to Belfast for a week to learn how conflicts could take hold of a community. But that was only the beginning of it. The gangs were made to live together in a Big Brother-style house where they couldn't escape each other's company. Two ringleaders had to share a room for seven days.

"We knew they would either kill each other or get on," says Jabir Udan, a community and youth worker at the 1,300-pupil George Green's School on the Isle of Dogs in Tower Hamlets, in London.

Thankfully, the experiment worked - and the two groups (one Bangladeshi, the other white) developed a respect for each other. They also learnt about Northern Ireland, visiting Protestant and Catholic schools and the "peace wall".

"Our kids couldn't figure out why they were fighting because the two sides were all white," says Kenny Fredericks, the head. "The other side couldn't understand why there didn't seem to be religion involved in gang warfare in London." This experiment in tolerance is now in its fourth year. Having begun by tackling fighting and violence, it addressed gang culture and, last year, bullying. "It's a lot better at the school," says Samantha Awuah, 15. "When my brother first came here, there was a lot of racial tension." But, although impressed by the improvements, she is struck by the tragedy of Northern Ireland. "It's kind of sad," she says. "They [the two communities in Belfast] haven't solved their problems over time."

Ellie Cromer, 13, appreciates the fact that she was chosen to go to Belfast. "We realised we were the lucky ones," she says. "I was in a room with two Bengali girls for the week and we really got along. They now say 'hello' to me and they're my mates but we didn't know each other before."

In the past the two groups had to be escorted home from the school. Jabir accompanied the white gang, and the deputy headteacher, Sue Tripp, the Bangladeshi group. Now they are able to pass one another in the street without incident. If there is trouble developing, staff are likely to be tipped off - like when two girls planned a fight off the premises to settle a score. When the youngsters turned up at the appointed spot, they found the deputy head and other staff there ready to intervene.

The Belfast experiment came about because George Green's is a pioneering "extended school" - in which a range of services is situated at the school rather than in the community. For example, Jabir, the youth and community worker, is based at the school. And the school has its own police officer - Pc Duncan Evans, the first copper to be put into a school in the East End.

There are now policemen in nine Tower Hamlets schools and 100 in the Metropolitan Police area. And the experiment is being extended to other inner cities. In addition George Green has its own social worker, Theo Lassey. Recently he and Pc Evans tackled a tricky child-protection case - where a pupil was suffering abuse. "We got the child out within 20 hours of being told of the problem," says Lassey. "That would not have happened if Duncan and I hadn't been working together." One suspects it also would not have happened had the two not gained the respect of the young people concerned.

"It's not about arresting kids," he says. "We do a lot of restorative justice - sitting with a kid and a victim. We don't blame them, but get them to sort out their differences. The victim talks about what has happened to him or her and the suspect hears the effect of what they did."

He has made 26 arrests - mostly for offences committed away from the school. And he helps youngsters who have to act as witnesses cope with the ordeal of appearing in court by accompanying them and offering them reassurance. "The attitude (towards the police) has definitely changed," he says. "The pupils can ask me about things like drugs and sentencing."

With the "extended school" approach, the head, Kenny Fredericks, has moved George Green's on from the days when parents protested that the school supported black pupils at the expense of white ones. "I make it clear to parents that if they're racist and don't want their kids mixing with others from different ethnic groups, this is not the school for them," says Mrs Fredericks.

Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, is full of praise for the place. "This is a good school with many very good and excellent features," it says in its latest report on the school."Clear and principled leadership from governors and principal has created an improving school with very good relationships and harmony between students."

Its exam performance is improving, with 34 per cent of pupils getting at least five A* to C grade passes at GCSE last summer, compared with 25 per cent previously. It is small wonder, then, that Tony Blair has heard about it and that Mrs Fredericks was asked to address a seminar at No 10 Downing Street.

r.garner@independent.co.uk

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