Now on The Learning Curve I’m going to talk to Peter Warden, the Head of the Winnie Mandela Community School, about the transformation in its fortunes that he presided over and about his upcoming role as the leader of a new a new government initiative to roll out his exciting methods across a range of failing inner city schools. Peter, welcome to the studio and congratulations on your new appointment.
Thank you, Libby
Perhaps you could explain to our listeners how you managed to achieve such a striking turnaround at Winnie Mandela?
Well, for a long time WiMa as we call it had suffered from indiscipline and low exam performance. In particular there was a macho culture of violence and chronic inter-ethnic tension between members of the various non-European and white British communities within the school. We—myself and my team on the staff—tackled these problems with a whole range of integrated and complementary pastoral approaches. Ultimately though it was one measure in particular that brought all of these threads together in a knitted whole.
And what was that?
We sponsored a studious African boy to travel from his home in Rumbabwe to study with us.
And this boy presumably was a catalyst for improvements in the school, giving stakeholders a fundraising goal, setting an example by his hard work, offering the students an understanding of how, given even their relatively deprivation, there were many many others in this world less fortunate than themselves?
Well, not exactly, no.
So how did he help the atmosphere in the school?
He gave everybody in the school—black and white, Muslim and Christian, poor and not so poor, chav and rude-boy—someone they could pick on.
Yes. A lot of people are sceptical about school bullying policies. They say that such schemes are an ineffective but conspicuous substitute for real punishment of perpetrators, that those testifying against bullies suffer further stigmatization and violence off school premises having been branded as “grasses”, and that the aim of these schemes is to save teachers from actually having to confront classroom thugs and their often intimidating parents directly. We believe they have failed because what has been lacking up until now is a consensus within school communities about who can and cannot be legitimately bullied.
Punishing so-called “bullies” for attacking other pupils isn’t just an infringement of their human rights. It causes unnecessary disruption to established behaviour patterns and upsets teachers and pupils. It can often lead to greater aggression from those branded in this way. This institutional stigmatization of whole sections of the school community is a serious cause of low self-esteem within the student body. In some cases children who have been, for example, excluded for violence against others vent their inevitable frustration by committing further acts of violence or vandalism—in some cases even burning down their own former schools.
So you have devised a scheme of focused scapegoating?
Exactly. Ntendo, our sponsored scholar, worked very hard and came top of many classes. In this elite position he naturally became something of a target of resentment from the less academically inclined. We on the staff did our best to divert the sense of inferiority his peers—regardless of their racial or religious affiliations—felt and channel their understandable aggression towards him. The results in terms of reduced tension and community spirit were remarkable.
How did Ntendo feel about this?
Well, you know what these Africans are like, he always seemed to have a cheerful smiling face.