Faith and unreason: The headteacher hounded from her job – Erica Connor took a failing school and turned it into a beacon of academic achievement and racial harmony. So why was she driven from her job by religious extremists and misguided officials? Tim Walker hears her story
On a Friday afternoon in September 2005, just two weeks into the new school year, Erica Connor walked away from the job she loved. The head of the once-thriving New Monument school in Woking, Surrey, Connor had borne the brunt of an unpleasant and unrelenting three-year campaign, conducted by a handful of local activists, to turn her non-denominational state primary into an Islamic faith school.
She had been attacked in the small print of a widely circulated petition demanding her removal; insulted in a rare graffiti scrawl across the front of the school; verbally abused by two of the school governors; and advised, for her own safety, to carry a personal police alarm at all times. Connor, who had always regarded herself as an optimist, was suffering from loss of sleep, loss of memory, loss of weight, loss of confidence. She was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and prescribed anti-depressants.
Yet her repeated attempts to enlist the aid of her local education authority were in vain; it had decided instead to take up her opponents’ cause. Despite support from her staff, parents and the community, Connor and her school were investigated – twice – by the LEA following accusations of racism and Islamophobia. Last month, at the High Court, she finally won £407,781 damages for negligence from Surrey County Council.
But this isn’t really a story of racial or religious strife. Throughout her ordeal, Connor remains convinced that the vast majority of the local community stood firmly in her corner, regardless of religious affiliations. Instead, it’s the story of how a tiny minority used the fear of such conflict, and the terror inspired by phrases like “institutional racism” or “Commission for Racial Equality”, to paralyse local government – and persuade the education system to abandon a gifted headteacher and her dedicated staff in their hour of need.
“It’s changed me for good,” says Connor, who is 57. “I hung on in, trusting the natural justice of the system – and that trust was totally knocked out of me. I can still hardly believe it could happen, that nobody at the LEA would stand by me. The court case has brought back some of my confidence, but I’ll never be quite the same again.”
New Monument’s neighbourhood is not your average Surrey suburb. In a county full of white, middle-class commuters, more than a third of Maybury and Sheerwater’s population is black and ethnic minority. Around 90 per cent of New Monument’s pupils, including children of Pakistani, Saudi and Omani descent, speak English as a second language. Around 80 per cent are Muslim. “We were never full,” says Connor, “because in Surrey it’s not an attractive proposition for many white, middle-class parents. The size of the school fluctuated around 300, including the nursery.”
When Connor became head in 1998, she inherited a faltering school, whose SAT scores for maths were as low as 4 per cent. “We had the TV and press camped outside,” she recalls. “I said to them then that I hoped they’d come back when the results improved.” Sure enough, two years later New Monument was named the second most improved school in the country, and in 2001 Connor and her pupils were invited to 10 Downing St in recognition of its success. The school won Government achievement awards two years in a row, and eventually averaged more than 90 per cent in all three core SAT subjects.
“The whole ethos of the school changed,” says Connor. “Parents and children really began to feel they could achieve more. It was lovely to take the children to meet Tony Blair, but the moments we really celebrated were within the school. It was an incredible thing that the staff had done as a team – you can never do that as just one person.”
Connor had even greater ambitions for New Monument, and began to work towards creating a three-school federation with two other Woking primaries. She took proposals to the LEA for a family learning centre and an internet café, in the hope of encouraging yet further participation, she says, from parents and the local community. “My philosophy was always that the child was a child in the community, not just an isolated unit in the school. Anything that could contribute to that was positive.”
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