IN MARCH 2014, every head teacher’s worst nightmare came true for Richard Brown. One of his pupils, 15-year-old Shereka Marsh, was shot dead by her boyfriend.
The details of the shooting, for which Shereka’s boyfriend — also aged 15 — was later imprisoned on a charge of manslaughter, remain unclear. He alleged that the gun had gone off by accident; the judge said that the evidence suggested that he pointed the pistol at her to frighten her.
But the result for Mr Brown, head of the C of E Urswick School, Hackney, in east London, for the past 11 years, was the same. One of the children in his care had died because of violent youth-gang activity. (The boyfriend had been looking after the weapon for an older gangster.) Yet what he has managed to achieve since the killing is impressive, and perhaps a model for other schools.
Although Shereka’s death had taken place in the boyfriend’s house, Mr Brown said: “The most crucial thing about all this is that you have to be absolutely confident that your school is safe. . . I was confident before that ever happened, and I’m actually just as confident now.”
OFSTED seems to agree: “The pupils who spoke to inspectors, informally and formally, were all clear in their message that they felt safe at school,” the latest report said in 2017. “Some pupils stated that they felt safer inside school than outside of it.”
How did Mr Brown create this culture of safety, in a part of inner-city London plagued with gang violence and serious violent crime among teenagers?
His first answer is zero tolerance. Every one of the 850 pupils at Urswick knows that, if they are caught with any weapon at school, they will be automatically expelled on the spot.
THE URSWICK SCHOOLThe head teacher of the Urswick School, Richard Brown
“It is an automatic permanent exclusion, and I think that’s exactly as it should be: it keeps everyone safe, and, at the same time, acts as a real deterrent.”
This policy is enforced not by knife arches at the school gates but by targeted searches based on tip-offs from other students. Scanning every pupil was a “clumsy mechanism”, Mr Brown said dismissively, owing more to “vanity politics” than a genuine attempt to make schools safe.
“It’s pretending to do something because it’s high-profile rather than doing the work on the ground. Everything in schools is about relationships between people.”
Instead, Mr Brown and the other 100 or so teaching and support staff at Urswick have spent years cultivating a culture in which the children buy into the idea that the school is a non-violent, neutral space, fearing the consequences should they break the rules.
His staff set high expectations —rigorously enforced — about being a safe school where even unhealthy snacks are banned, and, as a result, the only contraband that the pupils risk bringing in is junk food rather than knives. “While kids are trying to smuggle sweets and doughnuts into this school, I know we haven’t got a problem.”
URSWICK is in the heart of Hackney, a London borough where, on average, 280 violent crimes are committed every month. A man was hospitalised recently after being stabbed barely a stone’s throw from Mr Brown’s school.
Thanks to the hard work of the staff at Urswick, the dangers outside do not infiltrate the school. This Mr Brown sees as part of his responsibility to the pupils’ parents. “You can genuinely walk around this school and feel safe and secure, and, hopefully, loved and respected.”
Mr Brown said that this culture was fostered not just by strict rules and the threat of expulsion, but also by a holistic approach to the problem of youth violence.
“I absolutely buy into this whole notion of seeing these issues in the round, and seeing them as public-health issues,” he insisted. At Urswick, this took the form of teaching the children about how to make good choices for their future, and also how to navigate the sometimes hostile world of social media.
THE URSWICK SCHOOLPupils at the Urswick School
As head, he repeatedly emphasised the values of “hope, peace, and love”, he said, communicating these to parents, too. Teachers at Urswick not only teach their subjects, but also expected to be committed to the personal flourishing of those in their care.
Form tutors who see the same small group each day are called “Urswick Parents”. In Mr Brown’s words, this symbolises the necessity of a “close, loving, nurturing relationship” with a teacher who is “looking after your welfare”. For many of the poor and socially disadvantaged pupils at his school, who came from often broken homes, their relationship with their Urswick Parent is as significant as any outside school.
Mr Brown said that he relied on the support of a governing body that was not solely focused on academic success. “Unfortunately, in so many schools these days, if it’s not measured in a league table it doesn’t count. That’s definitely not the philosophy here. There has to be more than what was their maths result in the last exam.”
THIS form of nurturing was endorsed last year by the assistant director of the Southwark Diocesan Board of Education, Mike McKeaveney, at a pan-London church conference on youth violence (News, 23 November 2018).
“If they do not receive from school the sustenance they require, they look for acceptance elsewhere,” he said.
He noted, however, that every young person, victim or perpetrator, involved in knife crime in Croydon was not in full-time education, and so he urged church schools to resist using exclusion and expulsion as the solution to troubled teens.
Mr Brown continues to disagree. “It’s all very well to have the aspiration of not wanting to exclude anyone from a church school. It’s a Christian principle: we don’t want to exclude anyone.
“But that’s very easy to say, and very difficult to deliver if you know that your school is in a potentially dangerous area.”
Urswick did frequently forgive and re-admit temporarily excluded pupils, he said; but if it did not also uphold high standards on violence, and enforce them rigorously, it would put the whole school community at risk.
The rule acted mostly as a deterrent: there had been only one weapons-related exclusion in the past three years, he said.
The church ethos at Urswick was foundational to the culture of respect and safety which he had managed to build there, he said. He made “no apology” for the fact that his school taught children “what is right and wrong, and the best way to live your life”, centred on Christian teachings.
It was, in part, this unapologetic Christian atmosphere that led parents, mostly not churchgoers themselves, to send their children to Urswick.
“We are the only Church of England [secondary] school in Hackney, and, in my view, we have a distinctive ethos which is certainly not shared by the academies.”
It was this lack of C of E ethos, Mr Brown suggested, that was preventing other schools from replicating Urswick’s success against youth crime.