The real scandal of Kingsmead

Sandra Barwick
Saturday 29 January 1994 01:02

A BITTER wind blew across the Kingsmead estate in Hackney, across the satellite dishes and through the broken panes of one of the most notorious estates in east London. 'No one with a kid should have to live there,' a single mother, pushchair in hand, had said on the North London line. 'That Jason - that was there.'

In a room on this estate, 14-year- old Jason Swift died in 1985, victim of gang of paedophiles. Four years later another child died here. Danial Vergauwen, five years old, was punched to death by his stepfather after three years of being beaten by his mother. Kingsmead went on to develop its reputation for a degree of burglary, drug-dealing and vandalism beyond Hackney's norm. And now this. Just when locals felt that it was beginning to improve, when last year's police campaign had cleared out the worst criminal elements, now, thanks to Romeo and Juliet, trouble is back in Kingsmead.

A group of boys, the eldest 14, are bouncing a football noisily in a courtyard. 'S'boring,' says their leader. They cannot play on the windswept grassland across the road because a gang of boys 16- strong hold it as their territory. For many children in such an place as this the only hope of escape is that offered by a good education.

In the recent past, an escape route has not been found through the doors of Kingsmead Primary School. Her Majesty's Inspectors placed it, last year, on an unofficial 'at risk' register as a school failing to provide an acceptable level of education. That, not the matter of its political correctness, is the real scandal of Kingsmead school.

The Paul Hamlyn Foundation says it offered Kingsmead school, at the prompting of Hackney Council, not only heavily subsidised tickets to Covent Garden's production of the ballet, Romeo and Juliet, but the opportunity for some children to work with a professional choreographer, putting on their own dance version at the Hackney Empire. Ms Brown is said to have refused this offer on the telephone to a Covent Garden employee, giving, among other reasons for turning it down, the fact that the story was too heterosexual. She has since apologised to the parents for bringing press attention to the school.

'That's the way children will grow up here,' said a mother of a child at the school, 'they don't make up their own mind.' She and her husband said, behind the closed door of their home, that they would sue if I mentioned their names in print.

'We've been asked not to talk to the press,' they said. They fear that if it got out their child might bear the brunt. Such is the climate of free speech and open debate in Kingsmead these days. 'But if they've nothing to hide, why not talk?' asked the mother.

Their eldest child, they said, had left Kingsmead three years ago, aged 11, barely able to read. That child, with a little attention, is in the top stream of a new school: stupidity was not the problem. But under Jane Brown's headship, Kingsmead was much improved. Their second child, now at Kingsmead, was able to read by the age of seven.

'Jane Brown listens to parents,' said the mother. 'And she listens to kids as well. That makes a big difference. I like her. The school is better than it was. That's why a lot of parents support her. But how can we support her on all this if we're not given the facts? Did she make this comment about the ballet being too heterosexual? If not, why has she apologised? What's the truth? I wouldn't support her if I thought she'd got her job underhandedly.'

It has been suggested that her relationship with the woman who was chair of the board of governors when Ms Brown was chosen as head might have influenced her appointment. Jane Brown's union representative has said there is no truth in this and that the relationship only began 14 months after she was selected.

Sitting in their front room, the parents asked anxiously how they were meant to judge such a matter. They couldn't, they said, find out what the facts were. And yet they, the parents, and the board of governors, had supposedly been in control of the school, defying Hackney Council in its attempts to suspend Ms Brown.

What can parent power mean, without access to the facts? No report on the standard of the school in the recent past or present is available to the public. No official inspection will be carried out to give them one until the autumn of this year. Questions are being asked all over Kingsmead to which there are no clear answers - not least by the children.

'I had to try to explain to my eight-year-old at the schoolgates the difference between a homosexual and a heterosexual,' said the mother. 'He knows Miss Brown likes women, not men. I've tried to explain to him that it's not wrong to have a mum and dad. I said, don't let anyone tell you that.'

Whether teaching at Kingsmead favours heterosexuality or homosexuality is not the issue. Education is not the exercise of censorship, but the art of teaching children to weigh issues for themselves. To fail in that - if that is what has happened - is to fail some of the most needy children in the land. Darkness had fallen on the estate, and the playgrounds of the school were empty. It was half past five. In and out of the dark courtyards, apparently unescorted by any adult, ran three little children aged about four years old, frighteningly vulnerable, accidents waiting to happen.

(Photograph omitted)

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