My friend, John, says he first met Kamal Ahmed in 1976 when he was a rather fat 11 year old. Kamal lived a life of violence. Not that he fought very much. He was more beaten up than beating.
A Bangladeshi child, one of five brothers, his everyday life at the school in Bethnal Green usually involved being attacked by joint gangs of whites and West Indians. “You’ll remember,” he says, “it was called Paki bashing. It was despicably racist and seriously violent, but no one was interested in that fact. We lived with the fear of being killed, and no one understood that.
“To most of the boys who did it, it was just a laugh. Some of them had hate, but for most of them it was just a laugh. Many of them grew up nice people. But if you speak to those kids these days they say, ‘If we knew someone was going to give us a wallop if we did that, we’d have stopped.'”
Kamal is a quietly spoken disciplinarian. But he’s no Asian Grumpy Old Man. He has what he describes as a “can do, get on with it” attitude. “That life experience at school gave me the core values on which I now stand. Faith in your principles, hard and sincere work and being focused.”
He has always been impatient. After he left school he was recruited on to an inner London education authority scheme designed to turn the kind of experience he possessed to the benefit of youth work. He worked with kids in a similar situation; he went to college. It’s a familiar story. But he moved very fast up the ranks of public service, becoming increasingly frustrated at every rung.
“I was aggressively after getting it done. And it wasn’t that easy. Local authorities as organisations are seriously political cultures. It takes a very long time to make anything happen.”
Eventually he left and went into the private sector where he now runs his own company, GSL Education, which recruits teachers and social workers . He lives a “very comfortable life. Not compared with others, perhaps, but to us it’s a dream from where I started”.
During this time something else happened. On January 6 1990, he and his friends opened the Keen Students School (KSS). “We were angry and upset. The failure of the children in Tower Hamlets was monumental. There was one school where out of 200 students, only 13 had five grade A to C GCSEs. And none of them were really employable. There was a disease in the system. There was a genuine lack of effort by those responsible.”
So they got some teachers, a room, some books and some kids who wanted to learn. That day in January, six turned up. Now there are more than 500 regulars spread across every weekday afternoon and for three hours on Saturday.
How is it that the very same kids who are disruptive and won’t learn at school then volunteer to come after school and learn? Ahmed says: “They are expected to learn. In some of the local schools, teachers have expectations of the kids they wouldn’t dream of having of their own children. They mean well. They think they’ve had a hard time and it’s difficult for them to learn. But if you think about it, it’s racist. Not directly. But if you analyse it, the end result is that the child is failing.”
So what’s different at KSS? And it doesn’t matter how often I ask the question, the answer comes snapping back: ethos, culture and expectation. “In schools,” says Ahmed, “teachers are part of an institution where messing around is the order of the day.”
It’s an awkward message. Something different is happening at KSS. In one place kids are being failed, and in the other they are volunteering to learn. It’s not money. It’s not the physical facilities. So what is it? Well it’s ethos, culture and expectation, of course. Where in schools there is often institutional decay, a crisis of leadership, low expectations and low morale, the volunteers of KSS are managing to motivate the most underachieving kids.
No one cared about Kamal when he was Paki bashed. Now when you ask him who sets the ethos at his school, he says with a laugh, “I do”. From being beaten and bruised he’s become the “guy who goes and does”. It’s not surprising his expectations of kids are so high.
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