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‘Stepney Words’ pupils return 46 years on to meet sacked teacher Chris Searle again

PUBLISHED: 01:00 20 May 2017 | UPDATED: 18:57 20 May 2017

Chris Searle... back outside Sir John Cass School after 46 years with copy of latest edition of Stepney Words. Picture: MIKE BROOKE

Chris Searle... back outside Sir John Cass School after 46 years with copy of latest edition of Stepney Words. Picture: MIKE BROOKE

Mike Brooke

Retired school teacher Chris Searle is back to meet some of his old pupils today who came out on strike when he was sacked for publishing a controversial book of their poems called Stepney Words.

Chris Searle reading from original edition of Stepney Words at St Dunstan's Church in Stepney. Picture: MIKE BROOKE Chris Searle reading from original edition of Stepney Words at St Dunstan's Church in Stepney. Picture: MIKE BROOKE

He was dismissed as English teacher from Sir John Cass & Redcote Secondary back in 1971 for publishing the volume with photographer Ron McCormack after being told by school governors the book was “too gloomy”.

Chris, his dark hair now turned an ageing white, is back almost five decades on to launch his own biography at 1pm today and meet up again with some of the pupils who wrote those poems—now in their 50s and 60s—at Tower Hamlets’ Bancroft Library, less than a mile from the school that sacked him.

The controversy in 1971—an East London Advertiser exclusive which was picked up by the national press—led to a walk-out by 500 pupils who were joined by others from three neighbouring schools who came out in sympathy.

The rebellious youth picketed the school gates in Stepney Way, then marched to a protest rally at Trafalgar Square demanding his reinstatement, which made national headlines and the Six O’Clock News on the BBC.

Pupils on strike outside Sir John Cass & Redcote School pictured in 1971. Pupils on strike outside Sir John Cass & Redcote School pictured in 1971.

“My sacking was a gag on poetry that had creatively and critically questioned the world,” the 73-year-old grandfather told the Advertiser this week.

“Stepney in those days saw a lot of oppression and the kids wrote about it—bad housing, racism.

“The school prepared girls for the typing pool. The kids were in a rigid ‘stream’ system, creating low-self esteem.

“I taught lower-stream kids who saw themselves as ‘rejects’, but become critical in their poetry.”

How national press reported pupils' strike over Searle's sacking for daring to publish Stepney Words. Image: THE SUN How national press reported pupils' strike over Searle's sacking for daring to publish Stepney Words. Image: THE SUN

Chris took his pupils to nearby St Dunstan’s churchyard and round the East End streets to inspire creative writing.

“This exposed their home life,” he recalls. “Many lived in isolated tower blocks or in the classic East End slums that were being cleared.”

But the school governors of churchmen and businessmen disapproved of the book’s content as “too gloomy”—there weren’t enough ‘happy’ poems! A disappointed Chris stood firm.

“They wanted it censored,” he says. “I published the book as a ‘community’ project and didn’t even mentioning the school.

Chris Searle outside Sir John Cass School where pupils went on strike in 1971. Picture: MIKE BROOKE Chris Searle outside Sir John Cass School where pupils went on strike in 1971. Picture: MIKE BROOKE

“People donated, teachers put in a few quid, a local plumber even gave £100. We raised £300, just enough to publish, and got a deal from a Jewish printer down Brick Lane, Mr Wineberg, whose father had been in the socialist movement publishing a Yiddish newspaper before the First World War.”

That was enough to seal his fate and Chris was dismissed without a hearing—but was not forgotten.

Some of the young Stepney Worlds poets are turning up at this-afternoon, 46 years on, to meet up with “Sir” again and read out their works.

The readings are to launch his biography Isaac and I—A Life in Poetry, inspired by the works of East End Jewish radical Isaac Rosenberg who grew up in Cable Street before the First World War where, decades later, Chris happened to co-found a writers’ co-operative at the old St George’s Town Hall.

Chris has never really gone away. He went on to work at Poplar’s Langdon Park Secondary which openly welcomed his radical teaching methods and also became head of humanities at Daneford Secondary in Bethnal Green.

He held poetry workshops last year at four East End schools, Bethnal Green Academy, Morpeth, George Green’s and Langdon Park.

Meanwhile, a third edition of Stepney Words was launched at Bethnal Green’s Richmix arts centre in December.

Chris Searle was probably the most famous teacher in Britain for a brief period in the 1970s, a standard-bearer for the-then fashionable idea that schools should challenge society’s established values.

But he never escaped controversy. He was sacked a second time in 1992, as head of a comprehensive in Sheffield, after a damning inspectors’ report about low standards and unsatisfactory behaviour.

His teaching career started in 1971 in Stepney at a traditional church school run by businessmen, priests and philanthropists he says felt they were “doing working-class children a favour”. He dared to disagree.

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