Sacked radical head doomed to repeat the lessons of history

Chris Searle, classroom rebel of the 1970s, tells Fran Abrams why he is in trouble again
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The Independent Online
FOR a brief, heady period in the 1970s, Chris Searle was probably the most famous teacher in Britain, a standard-bearer for the then-fashionable idea that schools should help children to challenge established values. He became a cause celebre when he disobeyed his headmaster and was sacked for publishing his pupils' poems, some of which were written in London East End vernacular. Now, nearly a quarter-of-a-century on, he has been sacked a second time.

On the first day of the Christmas break, Mr Searle, head of Earl Marshal comprehensive in Sheffield, was called to the local council offices and told not to return to school. The school had been the subject of a damning inspectors' report which said standards were low, behaviour sometimes unsatisfactory and management ineffective.

Mr Searle is 50 and unlikely to find another teaching job. So is this the story of a 1970s radical whose career came to a sad end in the conservative 1990s? Perhaps. Given Mr Searle's controversial history, some might be amazed to learn not only that he got to run a school but that he was appointed as little as five years ago - long after the educational counter-revolution was supposed to have begun - without any experience even as a deputy.

A self-confessed product of Sixties student radicalism, he taught in the Caribbean for a year after going to Leeds University. Then he returned to Britain and the Sir John Cass Foundation and Red Coat School in Stepney, east London. There, the trouble started.

Sir John Cass was a traditional church school. Its governors, according to Mr Searle, were businessmen, priests and "general philanthropists who thought they were doing working-class children a favour." Mr Searle's view was that "schools must be there for the exercise of power for ordinary people, working-class people and black people, within the inner cities."

In 1971, Mr Searle, still in his probationary year, asked the head, Geoffrey Barrell, if he could publish some of his pupils' poems. Mr Barrell initially agreed. But when he saw the content - "All dirty greasy things bunged into bins, Stinkin' rotten hole is Stepney," one opined - he changed his mind.

Mr Searle was undeterred. Backed by the former dockers' leader Jack Dash, and by Trevor Huddlestone, then Bishop of Stepney, he raised pounds 200 for a book called Stepney Words. The school governors told Mr Searle to go, and the majority of the staff agreed. So did more than 100 East End headteachers who announced that none of them would employ him.

Mr Searle's pupils took a different view. More than 500 went on strike, marching to Trafalgar Square in their school uniforms to demand his reinstatement. They wrote a poem for him, too. "Thank you God from high above, For sending Searle for us to love," they chanted at the school gates. On the walls, slogans in purple paint proclaimed: "If Mr Searle goes - we go."

All this came naturally to the children, Mr Searle says. "It was in their blood. It wasn't an unusual thing for them to march in the streets or to go on strike. It was part of the culture."

After three days the pupils went back to their lessons but it took two years, a high court ruling and the somewhat unlikely intervention of Margaret Thatcher, then the Secretary of State for Education, before their teacher was reinstated.

Some of those pupils still keep in touch, but he wonders what happened to their ringleader, a Gibraltarian girl called Zanaida de la Cruz. "She typified the vibrancy of those wonderful young people."

Mr Searle went back to Sir John Cass for two years before moving to another East End school. His style increasingly typified the 1970s liberalism which the current government has taken such pains to stamp out. "It was a time of teacher radicalism and teacher militancy," he says. He went to court to defend a friend, another London teacher, who was accused of affray in a pub which did not serve blacks. The teacher's name was Blair Peach, and he later became a martyr of the British left when he was killed by a policeman's truncheon during an anti-National Front demonstration that turned into a riot.

The press turned on Mr Searle when he published another book of pupils' poems, this time on nuclear war, apartheid and life in East End factories. "Is this what your child was writing at school today?" screamed the headline in the now-defunct London Evening News.

Then he left Britain to teach and train teachers in Mozambique and Grenada, before becoming an adviser on multi- cultural education in Sheffield in the early 1980s. If he had carried on as an adviser he would have had to work under contract to Ofsted, the new national inspection body whose report was to bring him down.

"I did not want to become part of the national curriculum police force," Mr Searle says. He believed the national curriculum was "pre-cooked, state- licensed knowledge".

In 1990 he took over at Earl Marshal, an inner-city comprehensive. With only 400 pupils, it was threatened with closure, but the children took part in a successful campaign to save it.

Multiculturalism was a major theme - more than half the governors were of ethnic minorities - and yet another poetry book, School of the World, describes pupils' experiences of other societies. Pupil numbers rose to 600 and, for a time, exam results got better.

Then they fell again to this year's low point, when only six per cent got five or more high-grade GCSEs (against more than 40 per cent nationally). Mr Searle accepts that this was not good enough, and that the school had a long way to go to fulfil its motto, "For Excellence and Community". The local authority was not prepared to wait, and nor was the local MP, David Blunkett, who wrote to the Department for Education to express his concern. Staff complained about the school's policy of never excluding disruptive pupils, and members of one teachers' union refused to teach three of them.

The inspectors were called in, and, when next term starts, Earl Marshal will be under new management. Labour-controlled Sheffield council has shown that, when it comes to low standards, it can be as tough as the Tory government.

Mr Searle had intended to take early retirement in May, but the thing that really upsets him, he says, is that the council has also acted against the governors and removed many of their powers.

The council's education chief, Viv Nicholson, says that although Mr Searle and the school had the support of the local community, it was nevertheless failing its pupils.

Mr Searle is unrepentant andsays that despite the increasingly remote chance that his vision of changing the world through the classroom can be fulfilled, he will continue to pursue it."I follow Nelson Mandela's maxim: with optimism and struggle, all things are possible," he says.