Saturday, 1 May 2010

On July 10 1994, lest they forget

On July 10th 1994, I was walking back from a party in the Burley area of area, near to the cricket ground. As I walked up Brudenell Road I became aware that the clouds in the sky were arranged in the wrong order. They were dark at the bottom, then light on top. I turned into Hyde Park Road and the full force of what I was seeing struck me. A fire. A really really big fire.

At the crossroads of Moorland Road, Royal Park Road and Hyde Park Road, I looked down and I looked up. The Newlands was in flames, and these flames reached as high up into the sky again as was the building itself. There were people in the streets, police cars and fire engines. Pupils of mine from Royal Park Primary School were outside in their dressing gowns. Families were evacuated from the houses that joined onto the pub.

Next day the bulldozers finished off what the fire had started. In the weeks that followed we got used to having our cars torched. Over a decade later you can still see the scorch marks on the tarmac of some of our streets. Where the pub once stood, our Ground Zero is just a patch of wasteground, an ignominous reminder of a glorious piece of local history.

Next day at Royal Park School, headteacher extraordinaire Rita Samuel made sure that the events of the previous night were incorporated into the school day. And children and their parents who could been traumatised by the drugs gangs who had fire-bombed my local pub, were helped to feel safe.

It seemed that someone in the drugs world had grassed on someone else, and they were using our patch to have the fight on. The national press had a field day. Hyde Park became a synonym for a no-go area; theatricals coming to lodge with us gave backword.

Enter Unity. A group of local poeple got together to reclaim the community. There were people in full-time jobs, but it was mostly pensioners, the long-term sick, the disabled and the unemployed who took on Unity Day - a celebration of all sections of our diverse society standing up to the gangs and saying we will work and we will celebrate together. Leeds Council gave them a grant; the rest was fund-raising, fund-rasing, fund-raising.

Now there is still drug-dealing in this area; there is still violent crime including rape and murder; cars still get broken into regularly; Chestnut Avenue "enjoyed" the reputation for years of being the nost-burgled street in the UK, but it's all less than it was. There is a bastion of stability in the middle of all this: City of Leeds School, with the neighbouring attached City Learning Centre, with a network of tentacles going out into the community with counsellors, youth workers and the like. The school now has its own police officer who has a background in youth work.

When children are frightened they know which staff they can approach. Close City of Leeds School, or reconstitute it in whatever way looks good on paper, and you can make the difference between a child disclosing and a child living in fear. Close City of Leeds and those families who can will start to drift away, and those who can't, the most needy will be even more in need. Even the families who don't send their children to City of Leeds School need it to be there.

There's a time and place for GCSEs and it's not always Year 11. Schools under pressure to deliver the exam goods may actually be be doing more harm than good to some of our students.

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