Home secretaries should be schooled in Beryl Gilroy’s story

COMMENT: This government has for many years had a particularly nasty brand of Home Secretary. They have stoked divisions on immigration for their party’s political ends

Thursday, 7th July

beryl gilroy at beckford NJ Image 2020-06-18 at 10.52.54 (8)

Beryl Gilroy was head at West Hampstead Primary School, formerly know as Beckford

BERYL Gilroy was not just a pioneering headteacher of the former Beckford Primary School.

She was also one of the most extensively published Caribbean writers of her time and described by the British Library – which has recently opened an archive of her work – as “one of Britain’s most significant post-war migrants”.

Film director Sir Steve McQueen said she had “blazed a path that empowered generations”.

Oddly given her reputation as a pioneering headteacher, Beryl rarely attended school while growing up in Guyana. Her education depended largely on her grandmother, who trained her in the arts, herbs and medicine. Beryl once described her gran as a woman of “elemental energies”.

One of the so-called Windrush generation, she had been told that there would be no problem getting a job as a teacher in this country – only to encounter a particular brand of 1950s racism that prevented her getting a post.

She worked many jobs including in a café, as a maid, dishwasher, and in a factory then briefly becoming a teacher at a Catholic school, before taking 12 years out bringing up her children in West Hampstead.

She returned to teaching in 1968, at Beckford, as one of the country’s very first black headteachers.

In her 1976 book Black Teacher, she describes a heroine based on herself who was “at times boastful, defensive, aggressive, kind and humorous” and who felt like a “flawed human being in the process of finding her place in an alien society”.

In later life she developed a new practice of psychotherapy with the Institute of Education and published a popular series of children’s books, Nippers.

What a story! And one that shows the success of immigration and the values we should be aspiring toward.

It’s not at the time of writing clear who will be leading the country when the paper comes out in the morning.

But this government – from Theresa May’s hostile environment to Priti Patel’s flagship Rwanda policy – has for many years had a particularly nasty brand of Home Secretary. They have stoked divisions on immigration for their party’s political ends.

PM Johnson or not, it is the Conservatives that could do with a lesson from Beryl Gilroy. Her presence in permanent panels on the wall of West Hampstead Primary School is a wonderful addition to Camden.

As her daughter Darla said, it makes you feel optimistic for the future.

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