Bob Dixon



Bob Dixon


Bob Dixon was born in Spennymoor, County Durham. He went to school there and like most people, failed the eleven plus. Two years later, however, he gained a place at grammar school by means of an “occasional admittance” exam, which was part of a drive to recruit more teachers. From there, he climbed quite high up the educational ladder by going on to Nottingham and London Universities. However, according to Bob, since the end of his university career, he has been trying to find his way down to earth again! This process began in earnest during his two years of National Service in the army. Ten years of teaching followed at most kinds of state schools, including two years at Risinghill Comprehensive School just before it was closed.

Bob then spent two years doing educational research and teaching in Czechoslovakia before becoming a lecturer in English at Stockwell College of Education for eleven years. During his time at Stockwell College, he recalls having to struggle against continual harassment and discrimination because of his political views (in a broad sense). For the past twenty years or more, Bob has continued with his research and has written several articles, books and poems. He has had two collections of poems published, also the following books: ‘Catching Them Young’; ‘Now Read On’; and ‘Playing Them False’. Bob’s most recent book, ‘The Wrong’, has yet to be published, and it is in this book that he talks about his time at Risinghill.

“I managed to get a post as English teacher at a (mixed) comprehensive school which became quite famous: Risinghill. A very important factor for me was that Michael Duane, the headmaster at Risinghill, was against corporal punishment and was non-authoritarian. This was what I was looking for. (Many of the teachers at Southall couldn’t understand why I was making such a move, the more so as my new school was in Islington, then a very run-down, working-class area of London, only later to become ‘gentrified’.) Duane was, politically, an anarchist but, as a teacher, was in a direct line of descent from A Makarenko, Homer Lane and A S Neill. The first two of these, arguably, had the hardest job, as they were dealing, specifically, with delinquents, though they were not operating within education systems. A S Neill, to my mind, had an easier task as he ran a private school to which self-selected, ‘progressive’ parents sent their children. Duane, who would have acknowledged his debt to Neill’s theories (which were based on practice) had a harder task. He had an education authority breathing down his neck and simply had to do the job he was given in the new comprehensive school opened in 1960. Pupils from four Islington secondary schools were flung together into the new school, together with younger children from local primary schools. It was a recipe for trouble but it’s what happens when administrators are not only ignorant but cannot see beyond statistics to actual people.

When I started at Risinghill, at the beginning of the academic year in 1963, there weren’t any longer gang-fights in the corridors but it was still a very tough school, in a tough area. My classroom had bullet-holes in the windows, though made by an air-gun, I believe, and not when I was in it, I’m glad to say. The children came from a mixture of backgrounds : Cypriot (Turkish and Greek); Caribbean; Maltese; Italian and many others. Some (the Cypriots, for example) often had little command of English and, even if they had, it still wasn’t easy. One day, a boy exclaimed to me, ‘Sir! Sir! He swear at me in Greek!’ I think he was only trying to make trouble and, fortunately, we had Greek and Turkish Cypriot teachers. You could send someone to be told off in Greek. A small amount of corporal punishment took place, surreptitiously, in the school, but, overall, Duane’s approach was to talk to the pupils and try to understand them. He hadn’t chosen his staff at first. They had come from the other four schools and included four displaced head teachers (a problem in it). Thereafter, he had a say in new additions to the staff but it wouldn’t be entirely down to him.

The greatest difficulties were presented (I almost wrote ‘caused’ but, of course, they were symptoms of social problems, rather than causes) by native English children, white and black. The reasons are too complicated to go into here but motivation, or lack of it, would be an important factor.

The most difficult class I had was 4BL, four year boy leavers. (For some reason, the sexes were segregated in this case.) It was something of an achievement to maintain some sort of order, to stop fights breaking out and to get them occupied in some way. Sometimes, we just went out and played football in the school yard. Actually teaching anything was a bonus. However, with this class, as with others I had to take, by making up my own syllabus in an attempt to suit the children in front of me and by trying to start from where they were, I found some ways of getting through to some of them, which is something you can’t do with a national syllabus. A national syllabus could work in a non-class-based society but we don’t live in one. I’ve always found that most children like to be read to, provided you have suitable material, of course. I’ve also found it a good idea to provide them, at the same time, with something else to do, so that they don’t have to listen if they don’t want to and don’t have any cause to be disruptive. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea went down well with 4BL, for instance. Otherwise, ghost stories, tough verse and ballads such as ‘Frankie and Johnny’ and ‘John Henry’ usually worked. In one class, we took parts and read A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney.

Once, when I had a serious and running dispute with one of the boys in 4BL, Duane asked both of us into his office to talk about it. (How unlike Cormode at the school at Bow!) I felt a bit put out over this at first as it was an unusual procedure (to me, anyway) but I realised it was a sensible thing to do. Otherwise, when children wrecked lessons day after day, I often sent them to stand in the corridor. I think I overdid this but I didn’t know what else to do. They weren’t being taught in the corridor but the others weren’t being taught if the disruptive ones were in the classroom. An extension of this practice takes us into the question of school exclusions. No-one seems to have solved this problem (or symptoms of a problem) yet and it probably can’t be solved within society as it stands.

Briefly, Duane believed in love rather than punishment. Of course, many children make it difficult for you to love them but he, himself, was a very gifted teacher and I think I learned a lot from him.

He had a lot of opposition, both from within his staff and from the LCC (London County Council) Education Committee. This opposition centred on his stance against corporal punishment and his refusal to accept the expected, authoritarian role of a headmaster. As the Education Committee couldn’t get rid of him by any method that would have stood up to scrutiny, they closed the school. I won’t go into details (which would take us outside the scope of this book, anyway) but the whole history of Risinghill, especially its closure, is set out in Leila Berg’s book, Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School in which I appear under the name of ‘Mr Gwyn’. (A second book on Risinghill is in preparation, as I write). Suffice it to say that there was a gradual improvement in the school, over a comparatively short time, and, in the year it was closed, it had its first two university entrants.

(A more recent addition to the list of exceptionally gifted teachers, whom the state system finds it cannot accommodate, is Chris Searle – a socialist as it happens. He tells the story in An Exclusive Education.)