This is Gus John; they say he's not anti-racist enough

Fran Abrams meets an education chief who walked out
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The Independent Online
The worst times for Gus John, Britain's first black education director, were when his enemies started to call him a "coconut" - brown on the outside, white on the inside.

He had, after all, devoted his life to anti-racism. When he worked in Manchester, he spent the night of the 1981 riots ferrying people between Moss Side police stations and hospitals. Even now, the walls of his study, in a large terrace house in a rundown part of north-east London, are decorated with posters from recent productions by black theatre companies.

But nothing prepared this sometime gravedigger and Dominican friar for his seven stormy years as head of education for the London borough of Hackney.

It was a council, he says, where elements of the Labour left brought it close at times to mob rule. It was here that a storm broke over the primary school head Jane Brown, who refused tickets for her pupils to attend a performance of the Romeo and Juliet ballet because it was "entirely about heterosexual love".

It was here, too, that Hackney Downs comprehensive became one of the first schools in the country to be closed down on ministerial orders. And it was here that the smears and taunts against Mr John started.

Now he has thrown in the towel: last week, after three months on sick leave, he took early retirement at the age of 51. He will continue to pursue an industrial tribunal action, claiming that his employers failed to defend him from attacks by left-wing teachers and gay activists.

So how did it come to this? How did this black-rights activist become so unpopular with people who ought to have been his natural political allies?

His real troubles began in April 1995 when a coup within the ruling group moved Hackney council sharply to the left. His opponents, he argues, did not share his view that the only true liberation for black children lies in the highest-quality education.

Mr John was born in Grenada, West Indies. His parents were illiterate peasant farmers and as a scholarship boy he learnt the power of education. What marked him out from his peers was his mother's determination that he should have the opportunities she had not had. "There were lots of other kids around my village who had as much ability but weren't able to progress because their parents didn't have the money to send them to particular kinds of schools," he says. "There's a fundamental issue about quality education for people in working-class areas and inner cities."

He sees education as a means of delivering the social liberation for which he has always fought. He split from the Dominicans (he was a friar from 1964 to 1967) because of the Church's links with South Africa, and while gravedigging by day in the late 1960s he worked in an inner-city youth club by night.

Later, in Manchester, he ran a black parents and teachers association. He started a mobile bookshop selling books on race and by black authors and was one of the authors of Murder in the Playground, a controversial report on the stabbing of a 13-year-old Asian pupil at the city's Burnage High School. The report denounced local anti-racist policies which, it argued, did little to help ethnic-minority children.

He is still involved with a biannual book fair for radical, black and Third World books and is helping to set up a black-history archive. "It has kept me sane," he says.

After working his way up the local-authority ladder, he took over as Hackney's director of education in 1989. "I knew it was going to be challenging," he says. "I knew the volatile nature of the politics in this area, but I thought it would be enormously exciting."

He was certainly right: life here could never be boring. In 1989, 13 Hackney schools were "at risk of causing serious concern", according to inspectors' assessments, with Hackney Downs at the top of the list. Mr John's target was to improve exam results, and to get parents more involved. His plans, initially, were hotly contested by headteachers, though most have now accepted them.

"What really riled them," Mr John says, "was my insistence that achievement in a borough such as ours is the most pre-eminent equal-opportunities issue. Pupils here don't need teachers patting them on the head and saturating them with anti-racist compassion."

The initiatives worked, and exam results improved dramatically, except at Hackney Downs, where things continued to get worse. In 1994, it was declared failing by the national schools inspection body, Ofsted. Mr John argued for closure. "It simply wasn't viable," he says. "In spite of having one teacher to eight students, they couldn't demonstrate any improvement."

Meanwhile, the school staff were at war. Black parents and teachers had started a "racist incident book" designed to catalogue underachievement by black children in white teachers' classes. The group also sent mail specifically to black parents. The letters were taken home by pupils and, in one case, a child from a mixed-race family refused to give a letter to his mother because she was white.

Mr John objected. "Teachers and parents sat in a kangaroo court in judgment on white teachers. It was professionally unacceptable and it was undermining of the management of the school."

That was when the "coconut" taunts started. The black parents and teachers led black pupils in a playground demonstration during a dispute with the chair of governors. The council decided to close the school but changed its mind after the April 1995 coup. A month later, ministers sent in a "hit squad" of education experts who were supposed to take over the running of the school and improve it. They decided it was a hopeless case and in December it finally closed.

But if Mr John's handling of Hackney Downs infuriated the borough's more radical elements, the Romeo and Juliet incident drove them almost to apoplexy. When news of the affair broke, Ms Brown, the head of Kingsmead Primary School who refused the ballet tickets, maintained that her comments had been taken out of context. She had talked of the cost of the exercise and problems of staff cover as well as the issue of whether Romeo and Juliet was "a portrayal simply of heterosexual love", she said.

Mr John acted swiftly. He told reporters that Ms Brown's remarks had been grossly misjudged and that her views were not shared by other headteachers in Hackney.

"There I was," he explains, "with literally the world's media descending upon the education directorate, wanting to know whether this was our policy. I had to make a response."

But there was more to come. Ms Brown, it emerged, was having a relationship with a woman called Nicky Thorogood who was chair of governors at Kingsmead when she was appointed. She said the relationship had only begun after her appointment, but Mr John was not impressed. He told the school's governors that she was guilty of gross misconduct and called for her suspension pending an inquiry.

Instead, the governors refused to suspend Ms Brown and were backed by a fierce campaign against Mr John. "Take a stand against the media's witchhunt and Hackney's betrayal of Lesbians and Gays and Equal Opportunities," read literature put out by the Hackney Teachers' Association (the local branch of the National Union of Teachers). "Shame on you," read a letter to Mr John from one local activist. "Is there no one left in public life with integrity?"

Mr John replies: "The gay and lesbian community claims there was a witchhunt initiated by the homophobic media and pursued relentlessly by a homophobic director of education whose homophobia is unquestionable because he happens to be an Afro-Caribbean male."

Ms Brown was cleared but Mr John remains bruised by his treatment. "It's as if everything else I have done for seven and a half years is of no concern at all. All that seems to have mattered was two high-profile debacles."