This blog is in response to the photographic exhibition Ghost Streets of Balsall Heath which was on at The Ort Cafe this weekend as a precursor to a major exhibition next year at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery.
Janet Mendelsohn was a young photographer in Birmingham in the 1960s. She had a brilliant talent for capturing the reality of people’s lives in that moment in time. Her work shows communities getting on with their lives against a backdrop of grinding poverty partly demonstrated by the derelict landscape (large areas of wasteland, rubble, half-demolished factories and empty houses) that was Balsall Heath. It was a part of the city where the slums had been cleared but not replaced so children played amongst the partially demolished buildings. Tensions existed between the white working class community, travellers and the newly arrived immigrant populations. Growing up in Birmingham in the 1970s, my memory is of Balsall Heath only being talked about in relation to prostitution. For many it was considered, and had been for decades, Birmingham’s redlight district. Mendelshon’s photography shows it was far more than that but even she was drawn initially to take the photographs in order to better understand the lives of sex workers.
Today Balsall Heath is still a place of significant deprivation but it is also a thriving community which has for a long time now promoted a sense of pride and hope. I am privileged to work and spend time in schools in Balsall Heath. Clifton, Nelson Mandela Anderton Park and St John’s Cof E primary schools are fantastic not just because OfSTED says so but because they play a key role in leading their communities. I am also aware of the excellent education at Heath Mount primary school although my work does not take me there.
You can trace the transformation of Balsall Heath back to the 1970s when the St Paul’s Community Trust brought people together to support local development across a broad area of public life. The trust was created out of a sense of desperation and the need to fight back Education was just one part of the work but, for me, it was the key. As an NQT at the beginning of the 1990s I was sent to look round Nelson Mandela Primary as one of the standout schools in Birmingham. It has continued to offer an outstanding primary education for almost three decades. 200 yards down the road is Clifton Primary School. Clifton is a 4 form entry school with a wonderful learning environment, Clifton is another outstanding school in OfSTED’s eyes but more importantly because of the leadership and hope it gives to the community. Between Balsall Heath and Sparkbrook lies Anderton Park the only school to receive a glowing report from the first wave of Trojan Horse inspections. A stones throw from Anderton Park is Saint John’s C of E primary school which is an outstanding Anglican school where brilliant pedagogy and commitment to communities combine. Towards Moseley are two outstanding Catholic primary schools: St Martin de Porres and Saint John and Saint Monica. The St Paul’s Trust runs an outstanding children’s centre.
In a very small and poor area of Birmingham, six brilliant primary schools and a children’s centre have contributed to the transformation of individual lives and a whole community.
Recent contributions to the critique of public education have led me to reflect on my own teaching during twenty years in classrooms. The recurring question is whether I was part of some misguided liberal experiment in education? It’s not a question that can ever have a definitive answer. However, standing today looking at the photographs in the exhibition and preparing to be in Nelson Mandela Primary School tomorrow morning I can be confident that, putting my own teaching to one side, the staff of those Balsall Heath schools in the 80s right through to those working there today taught so well that they led a community from dereliction and despair to something that feels like hope. You only have to look at the photographs and ask what would have become of the area without outstanding public primary education. Here is evidence of the power of outstanding primary education. In considering the future, those driving educational reform need to look to current headteachers, teachers and support staff and consider how so many people have got so much of their work right for so long.