Big Read: Isle of Dogs has moved away from racism, says retiring George Green’s head Kenny Frederick

Kenny Frederick

Kenny Frederick - Credit: Archant

The retiring head teacher of an Isle of Dogs school says the area it serves has moved away from the “overt racism” she encountered when she arrived there 17 years ago.

As Kenny Frederick waved goodbye to George Green’s School for the last time on Friday, she reflected on the increased acceptance of diversity among pupils and parents on the Island.

But things were very different when she took over in 1996. She says racism was commonplace, with children from different ethnic backgrounds not even speaking to each other in class.

“I came to the Island and I didn’t really quite know what I’d taken on because it has its own character,” she said.

“It’s very inward looking. There was terrible overt racism between the white population and the Bengalis. It was really quite shocking.”

Upon arrival, she made the decision to confront the racism she encountered - starting in the classroom.

She explained: “Kids hadn’t gelled together. One of the first things I discovered was there had been a fight in a year 11 class between a white boy and a Bengali girl, and they didn’t know each other’s names - but they’d been in the same class for five years.

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“When you walked around the school the white kids would sit with the white kids and the Bengali kids would sit on their own; it was very strange. So the first thing was to try to bring people together, which is easier said than done.

“But it’s a different place to when I took over.”

During her time at George Green’s she has helped establish the school’s reputation as a pioneering institution.

In one project, she oversaw visits to Belfast for some of the schools “toughest gang leaders and racists” to give them an insight into the divisions there. Despite her nerves, the scheme paid off - with some of those pupils going on to deliver assemblies condemning Islamophobia in the wake of 2007’s London bombings.

And in 2008, the school was among the first in the UK to start teaching the International Baccalaureate. And it is such “calculated risks” as those which Mrs Frederick says have given her the biggest satisfaction.

The qualification allows pupils to study a wider range of subjects for longer.

“It was a very tough process, and it’s the best thing we’ve ever done,” she said. “It’s really raised the game.”

The work the school has done around inclusion and ensuring everyone is welcomed there – regardless of any special needs they may have – is also a source of pride.

“I’ve always felt that whatever your needs you should be educated – if you can – in a mainstream school.

“The nicest thing is when you sit at a graduation evening and there’s some kids up there graduating and you look at them, and say ‘gosh, here’s this youngster who’s gone through so much and they’re actually graduating with GCSEs’ – whereas two years ago I might have thought they might not make it.”

Now at the age of 60, Mrs Frederick is stepping aside from her role, during which she has established a reputation as a leading voice of the teaching profession.

She taught geography at schools in Haringey and Hackney before being given the headship at George Green’s and she will work as a consultant passing on her wisdom to other schools and head teachers during her retirement.

But she admits she will miss the faces of colleagues and pupils at George Green’s.

“You have to leave sometime and I think I‘ve chosen the right time to leave, while I’m still healthy. I wouldn’t want to become an embarrassment!

“I’ve made the right decision but I shall still be very sad saying goodbye to people because I’m very emotionally attached – which is why I stayed 17 years. I’ll miss people - pupils and staff.”

Throughout her 17 years as a head, Mrs Frederick has remained determinedly outspoken, at times being highly critical of government policies – most recently those backed by Conservative education secretary Michael Gove.

And she insists teachers should be willing to go on record with their views.

“I think it’s a duty,” she said. “Education’s too important to have people trying to win a vote to use as a political football.

“I can’t stand by and listen to the nonsense that comes out of the politicians or media – whoever it is – that all teachers are useless when I actually see what they do every day.

“Political interference really winds me up. But sometimes heads are scared. If you’re a new head you think ‘oh, I’ll get into trouble’. But I’ve never got into trouble; nobody’s ever said boo to me. I always explain what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.”

Her replacement, Jill Baker, who is coming from the Jo Richardson School in Dagenham, will therefore have her blessing to voice her own views.

But Mrs Frederick, who came to the East End from Kilkenny in Ireland as a child, insists she will not be interfering too much as her replacement settles in from September.

“I’m happy to be handing over to her,” she said. “It’d be difficult if it was someone who I didn’t trust, but you have to let go.”