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All About Togetherness

Mian Ridge

Gerry Curran has spent his career helping all pupils to achieve, whatever their backgrounds

When Gerry Curran arrived in Southall, west London, in 1967 for his first teaching job, he never imagined he would still be there, still teaching, nearly half a century later. "When I'm walking down the street I'm often greeted by 51-year-olds who call out, 'Hello, sir!'," says the headteacher of Featherstone primary school. "It's difficult to believe that the first children I taught are in their early 50s."

Nor could Curran have imagined how this area would have changed during those years. Today, Southall is famous for its Asian character; curry restaurants and sari boutiques line the shopping streets of "Little India". But when Curran started his first teaching job, at St Anselm's Catholic primary, his first class had 34 white and four Caribbean pupils. After a short spell in Warwick, where he held his first deputy headship, he returned to Southall in 1973; soon after he became deputy of what was then Featherstone middle school.

Ever-changing ethnic mix

By this time, there was a significant number of Asians living in the area, many of whom were being bussed to different schools so that the ethnic mix was balanced. When that policy was abolished - quite rightly, in Curran's view: parents found it difficult to visit their children's schools, miles away - the school's Asian population burgeoned. Up until a few years ago, more than three quarters of Featherstone's pupils were Sikh and Hindu. But recently, Southall's demographics have once again altered. Today, nearly half the school's pupils are Muslims, from countries from Eastern Europe to Somalia.

This ever-changing ethnic mix has shaped Curran's teaching career and, he says, his life. And now he is the winner of the national Lifetime Achievement Award in this year's Teaching Awards. In the judge's report, Curran is praised for many things, but it is his role as an inspiring and effective leader in a multicultural environment that is given particular attention. The judges speak of "his desire for a community where all could be comfortable" and salute his success in achieving this - not only in his school but beyond.

Curran grew up in Northern Ireland - he speaks with a softened brogue - and came to London when he was 19. He had always wanted to be a teacher, "although at the time my mother heard the call louder than I did; she gave me a lot of encouragement". But he had to live in England for three years to qualify for a college grant, so he took a job as a civil servant. Then he did his teacher training at St Mary's College. "The idea had always been to go back to Northern Ireland to teach, but I met my wife, so I found myself staying."

No stranger to empathy

Perhaps it was the knowledge of what it was like to arrive in London as a stranger that forged Curran's singular empathy for Britain's immigrants. Either way, he was certainly the right man to be appointed head of Featherstone primary nearly three decades ago, when no one could have guessed how the area would change. A warm, charming man, he is also smart and focused; one can imagine him steering the school through challenging times.

"If you are dealing with a dominant ethnic group it is easy to taper everything for them, but you have to be quick off the mark to adapt to diverse groups when they arrive with not just a different religion but their own cultural mores," he says.

These challenges have been compounded by a large and fluid population of asylum-seekers. Southall is near Heathrow airport, making it a popular destination for immigrants, and many of the houses in the school's catchment area are rented out to asylum-seekers.

"In the last year we had 100 casual admissions; the year before, 160," says Curran. Not only does the school get little warning of these new pupils, it is also not told when they will leave nor, very often, where they have gone. Many pupils, especially from Afghanistan and Somalia, have never been to school before; so Featherstone gives them a gentle but comprehensive induction. "And many of the children of asylum-seekers have had traumatic experiences; that is something we have to address," says Curran.

In addition, he has introduced a number of programmes designed to help new children from overseas to settle in the area, from outings to shops to intensive, daily English lessons. He has gone out of his way to employ multilingual teachers and he also supports parents however he can. Describing these schemes, Curran's emphasis is always on the people they are designed for, rather than the projects themselves.

I ask him how teaching in Southall has shaped his views of faith schools. Curran was educated at a Catholic school and went to a Catholic college; his first job was in a Catholic institution. Today he is head of a school of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus - and only a few Christians.

"It is such a pleasure to go into class and hear about different faiths and what it means to the children - I've learned a tremendous amount from them," he says. "I find it more difficult now to accept the concept of a specifically Catholic ethos; the ethos is made by the teachers and the children, not any one religion. So I think that it is better, where possible, for children to be educated together."

A Sikh school, he says, is currently being built in Southall, and this bothers him. "I find it sad because I think the interests of the Sikh community have been well served by the area's schools over the years. I'm worried that though there are more Islamic children, there will be less opportunity to grow up together, to understand each other." He adds, however, that he expects Southall to remain what it is now: "an exemplary multicultural community".

Curran, who retires next year, finds Southall's ethnic mix "absolutely fascinating". He has gobbled up its challenges and delights in what they have taught him. But what he really cares about is not multiculturalism per se but education: giving children the best chance to learn and thrive, whoever they are.

"Never once have I got up in the morning and thought, I don't want to go to work," he says, with feeling. "The last 40 years have been made by the people I've worked with, the children and their parents, and I've enjoyed every single moment of it."

fragments of Mian Ridge's article from The Guardian, Tuesday October 17, 2006
The Guardian
http://education.guardian.co.uk/teachingawards/story/0,,1923586,00.html

 

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