The making of a Hackney martyr

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The Independent Online
IT BEGAN as a glorious story of how the drab, politically correct culture of radical London can degenerate into know- nothing absurdity. Jane Brown, the head teacher of Kingsmead primary school in Hackney, who is also a lesbian, refused cheap tickets for her children to see the Royal Ballet's production of Romeo and Juliet as Shakespeare's story was 'entirely about heterosexual love'.

The press, serious and tabloid, British and foreign, went wild. The sensible left asked how an alleged socialist could deny deprived children the chance to go to Covent Garden where tickets can cost up to pounds 100. The right did not need to ask anything. Their worst suspicions about barmy local government were confirmed.

There is a script which is normally followed on these occasions. The council is meant to show outrage and the school's parents and governors are expected to demand that the teacher is sacked - particularly if homosexuality is involved.

Labour controlled Hackney council, anxious to avoid

being branded loony left, was angry enough. Councillor Pat Corrigan, the chairman of the education committee, described the refusal to take children to Covent Garden as 'an act of ideological idiocy and cultural Philistinism'.

But the parents and the governors failed spectacularly to play their allotted parts.

The governors refused to accept a recommendation from Gus John, Hackney's director of education, to suspend the teacher while the council investigated allegations, which had grown to include claims that Nicki Thorogood, the chairwoman of the school governors when Jane Brown was appointed, and who later became Ms Brown's lover, had unfairly helped her get the job.

Last Friday they also

rejected attempts by the council to get governors from other schools to hear disciplinary charges against Ms Brown and said they did not trust Hackney to supervise the hearing.

The parents of the 100 children at the school have also backed Ms Brown to the hilt. For 10 days, Kingsmead has been surrounded by reporters and the parents have come to the conclusion that they prefer a pink head teacher to the press.

'It's disgusting the way she's been hounded by the media and the council,' one parent said last week. 'No one gives a toss about her private life . . . that's her business. She's a good teacher who has done a lot for my kid.' Even Covent Garden and the charity which offered the tickets have expressed tentative support saying they have no wish to see Ms Brown out of a job.

This week the remarkable transformation of Ms Brown from figure of fun to martyr will be complete. Fifty people have formed a campaign which will portray the press and council treatment of her as a homophobic attack on gays and

lesbians.

'We want to collect 20,000 signatures and really hurt the council in election year,' said Richard Reiser, the local leader of the National Union of Teachers. 'The council is out to get her sacked, and they don't care how they do it.'

Ms Brown's supporters' central complaint (Jane Brown would be sacked if she spoke to the press) is that the council has fanned the media assault on its teacher. They point to the curious way news of the Covent Garden tickets affair emerged.

The offer was made in September by the Hamlyn Foundation, a charity that promotes education and the arts. Kingsmead pupils, along with children from other deprived schools, pensioners, the low paid and the disabled, were invited to see opera and ballet at Covent Garden in seats costing between pounds 2 and pounds 10 a head. The opera house had been booked for a week and 12,500 subsidised tickets were available.

Ms Taylor refused and, when Ingrid Haitink from the foundation phoned to ask the reason, made her fateful comments about Romeo and Juliet's stereotypical portrayal of straight teenage love.

Ms Haitink wrote to the council's arts officer on 10

October saying 'we were a little surprised' about Ms Brown's refusal to accept tickets because Romeo and Juliet was 'entirely about heterosexual love'.

The council took no action, did not ask Ms Brown for an explanation and left the letter to lie in the files until the London Evening Standard phoned three months later, on 18 January, to check if a paragraph they wanted to put on their diary page was correct.

Ms Brown's supporters claim that Hackney not only confirmed the story but told the paper Jane Brown's name and the name of the school. A small item was transformed into a big news story.

Next day, the council was accused of condemning Ms Brown in a press statement before it knew the facts. The day afterwards, of forcing Ms Brown to issue a public apology she had not approved. In the week that followed, of responding to, and therefore giving credibility to, false newspaper claims that Nicki Thorogood was either her lover when Ms Brown was made headteacher of Kingsmead or her sister.

Ms Brown's supporters claim that as a result of the council's co-operation with the press, her school, home, teachers, pupils and friends have been surrounded by journalists looking for dirt.

At one point last week an intensely bitter Ms Brown turned on the education director, Mr John, and cried: 'I am not talking to you again. You have ruined my life.'

But the council believes that three charges remain against Ms Brown.

First is her judgement in refusing the tickets on the grounds that the ballet was an elitist, white institution which promoted heterosexuality.

Second is her account of her conversation with Ms Haitink. Ms Brown told Mr John that although she could not remember precisely what she said, she did tell the foundation that one reason for refusing the tickets was because there were not enough seats to offer to all her children and it was the Kingsmead's policy to send all pupils on a trip.

This, the council said, was legitimate, but when Mr John spoke to Ms Haitink, she produced a note of the conversation which alleged that Ms Brown made no mention of school policies, but talked instead for 20 minutes about homosexuality, racism and elitism.

Third, although the council accepts that Ms Brown and Ms Thorogood were not lovers when Ms Thorogood was on the panel that awarded the head teacher's job in March 1992, there is still an allegation that she coached the teacher.

Ms Thorogood helped draw up the questions for the candidates shortlisted for the head teacher's job in 1992. Hackney's rules state that once an applicant is shortlisted, the decision whether to award job is made solely on his or her performance in the interview. A candidate with advance knowledge of the questions would have a massive advantage.

'We are fairly and openly trying to deal with serious allegations,' said Pat Corrigan, chairman of the education committee. 'Forget homosexuality for the moment and imagine an accusation that Freemason officers were giving jobs to Freemason applicants. We'd be pilloried if we did not investigate or refused to answer press questions - and rightly so.'

(Photograph omitted)

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