Gerry German

“Gerry was a life-long campaigner for children’s education rights and an unwavering supporter of all our struggles.

Having been a former headteacher and Principal Education Officer at the Community Relations Commission/Commission for Race Equality, he helped to establish the Working Group Against Racism in Children’s Resources and sixteen years ago invited me and a couple others to join him in setting up the Communities Empowerment Network (CEN). Over those sixteen years, CEN has dealt with an average of 1,000 school exclusion cases per year, providing advocacy to school students and their parents and representing them at School Governors Disciplinary Committees and at Independent Appeals Panels. 

Gerry deplored the punitive approach with which this country deals with children and young people, irrespective of their needs, and fought relentlessly for a more compassionate and children-centred schooling and juvenile justice sustem. He will be remembered for his warmth, generosity, humour and pure grit, especially when confronting injustice.

We give thanks for his extraordinary life and his giving and compassionate spirit.

Peace and hope!”

Professor Gus John, CEN's Patron and Co-Founder


The Guardian

Times Educational Supplement

Gerry German (1928 - 2012), founder of Communities Empowerment Network

+An interview with Gerry German, founder of CEN -An interview with Gerry German, founder of CEN

An interview with Gerry German, founder of CEN in 2005 by MH, reproduced here with kind permission.

Interview notes on thesis aimed at celebrating and articulating the educational achievements of African-Caribbean people from a perspective that centres the experiences and educational approaches of African-Caribbean women in the UK

Interview foci:

  • Context for Black Educational Issues
  • Personal Experience of Black Educational Issues
  • Suggestions for networking/action


MH explained the aim of the thesis.

GG      Responded positively pointing out that many other approaches take a pathological perspective on Black educational issues and that it was good that this thesis was addressing the real question “What are the aspirations, energies of our young people?” rather than starting with the otherwise diversionary one, ‘Why are our children failing?’ Although that question has its place once the positive groundwork has been laid.


GG      They [Black youths] react the way they do because they don’t have people around them who are articulating their dreams, hopes and aspirations; parents and teachers too often issue cautions and criticisms instead of encouragement. There is a particular lack of honesty in the school engagement between pupils and teachers. There is a lack of mutual trust and therefore a lack of mutual respect.

If only we could do daydreaming with students, so as to achieve a state of uninterrupted freedom when they can release their imaginations and creative energies.   His/her story as we learn it needs to be supplemented by the story of their people, their families and their communities.  At school they should be constantly reminded about their real identity, their  language and their culture, all those elements that have enabled their people to survive with dignity and determination over generations and centuries. Adults also need to daydream and let themselves go creatively.

MH, agreed with GG’s later point about life’s maze, that you have to go in before you can come out, giving the example of a Christian undergraduate she is teaching at the moment, who is struggling to express and reflect on her feelings.

GG      Religion isn’t doing for her what she needs.  She probably needs the spiritual release rather than the religious framework which can often be cramping and narrowing, rather than emancipating.

GG refers to the damage wrought by deficient theories of intelligence, especially the fixed bell curve of the distribution of ability, with a small number of elite high flyers at one end, the average lumped together in the middle – where else?! – and the growing number of failures and the under-achievers at the bottom end. Formal assessments seem obsessed with producing the perfect bell curve – hence the built-in under-performing rump.

GG      Failure is built into our system.  In the 50s & 60s we were concerned with progress and inclusion.  This failure is worse on those who like this young woman are initially identified as a potential success but have had their spiritual identity and self-esteem neglected. Consequently this young woman, now in her second year at university, is struggling academically but that is to do with the neglect of her spirit much earlier on. 

            Many of our parents are suspicious of suggested referrals to the psychological and mental health services, for obvious reasons – the initial tendency to stereotype can lead to a negative labelling that can last for ever.

            We need to assist parents in using the services around them in resisting the tendency of institutions like schools to pathologise pupils and their families as though the academic and social problems they present are due to their inherent faults rather than inter-actions in the school setting with its built-in problems.

GG      School should function as a learning community.  There is a need to promote empathy and opportunities for reflection. Teacher training needs to compensate for these failures in schooling, especially in their schooling on the road to the measurable success that has set them on the road to teaching. Intending teachers need to remember what it is like to be young and to make mistakes. The classroom needs to be a place where pupils can discover that their teachers are kindred spirits willing to join them in the struggle against ‘race’, sex, class, age and ability discrimination. Teachers need to see pupils and parents as their natural allies rather than enemies waiting to ambush them.

MH     I know that if I was white, and/or male and/or middle class the exclusion I experienced as a teacher would not have happened.  They find it easier to accept new ideas and approaches from someone they think deserves to have them.

GG      I am the beneficiary of white, male and middle class logic that has endowed me with privileges and power. The more I mastered the logic and colluded with it, the more I allowed myself to be sucked into the system, the greater my status and security and the greater the rewards bestowed upon me. So long as people forget or even deny their origins and their roots, the bounties and privileges are likely to be even greater.  But education is a right, not a privilege! That is why we need to re-establish our rootedness. Teachers and carers need to know who they are before presuming to assist young people to find themselves. We must not be tempted to collude with a system that further divides people on the basis of race, class and gender – and thereby debilitates individuals and communities.          

MH     Of all the things that happened to me (at the school where I ended up needing nine months off work because of stress) what hurts me more is that my own community excluded me.  I went away to learn how to teach at the highest standard and finally came home to a community who would look at me with contempt but were quick to show deference to the white male middle class teachers who didn’t really care about their child.

GG      Expectations themselves can lead to disappointment. The worst kind of rejection is from your own. We expect better from them.  But a Black person can think like a white person – because the system is powerful and sucks people in.  The difference is of course that a Black person will be closely assessed and watched, even by their own.  That’s the essence of institutional racism (IR).  Racist responses are built into the system. Remember that direct racial discrimination is defined as less favourable treatment compared with others. It doesn’t matter who the perpetrator is – s/he can be Black. It is the process and the discriminatory outcome that matter.

GG      How do we engage with

  1. self
  2. issues
  3. integrity

            British system is about control and obedience but not self.

            Most problems arise out of relationships.

                        “Discipline is the sum total of relationships”

EB Castle, Hull University

MH     I’m glad you mention relationships because I believe what Emmanuel Lartey – a    pastoral care theologian says about relationships.  That is relationships are the    essence of spirituality.  He identifies 5 relationships that provide the context for    spiritual encounters.

  1. Transcendal (sense of something/someone greater than us)
  2. Intrapersonal (self)
  3. Interpersonal (significant others)
  4. Communal (community, society)
  5. Environmental (nature)

All these aspects I believe need to be addressed in a holistic approach to education and that is why my thesis openly acknowledges spiritual dynamics.                       

GG      Too many schools in the UK regard discipline as obedience and conformity when they should be thinking about self—discipline, a sense of the occasion and relationships. Gerry was initiated into the guidance approach to discipline, based on  Adlerian group dynamics which identify 4 types of behaviour goals:

  1. 1.     attention seeker (AGM)
  2. 2.     power contest
  3. 3.     the revenge seeker
  4. 4.     apathetic – has given up.

He recommends Psychology in the Classroom by Rudolf Dreikurs. Published in the Fifties but as fresh now as it was then. There are companion volumes – The Challenge of Parenthood and The Challenge of Marriage.

            Common to hear teachers say to students and parents say to their children “I’ll take the wind out of your sails”.  It is better and more productive both in the short- and the long-term for adults to take “their sail out of the young people’s wind”

GG      We need to know and tell our own story.  Others’ stories will then have relevance and meaning. We need to know and appreciate our own origins and development in order to develop self-confidence, self-esteem and empathy. When adults seem to stop learning and honestly remembering, that is the time when they are likely to contribute to children being alienated.  They have first alienated themselves, of course!

MH     I know what you mean.  That is why I had to find an alternative to the literacy hour and go out my way to make literacy real by linking it to geography, by having the children write persuasive literature to have people support the campaign to regenerate the local park. But they (colleagues) did not like it one bit.

GG      You weren’t running just a literacy hour with experiences counting as important because they were between the covers of a book - you were running an activity that resonated with your pupils. Children can learn only when they are focused and when they are concentrating. But they only concentrate when they are interested in something and absorbed by it, when it means something to them in their lives. Effective learning really has to be self-determined.

Personal Experience         

GG      When I taught in Jamaica in the 1950s & 60s it was a very exciting time.  My first headship was at a school in Mandeville which was dominated by white- and light-skinned people at that time. That was a social hangover which took an intense effort to discard. The school reflected that, also in the way the forms were streamed, ostensibly according to ability. When I took over, the tennis court gave the appearance at least of being used exclusively by the White students.  They didn’t know that Black people could play tennis because they had never seen any play.  So to change the thinking behind the practice, all I did was to go out and buy tennis rackets and balls for all. Suddenly Black students were seen to be able to play tennis!  Things have to come together.

I was against streaming by ability or any other formula – as I am wary also of setting - but we kept the alphabetic labels. However, the forms would change their simple letter labels every year – A in Year One, C in Year Two, B in Year Three, C in Year 4 and A or B in Year 5.  At first some of the staff would complain that they couldn’t remember which stream the students were in two years ago, and I would say good, I can’t either. Nor can the students and nor can their parents! That is how it should to be. We don’t need labels that last forever, hanging like an albatross around our necks and denying us equal access to the full range of opportunities. And the young people excelled at their studies.

MH     Do you think you have been a good role model to female pupils as well as male?

GG      If you are holistic in your approach to teaching students, you will be a good role model to everyone.  Remember you have to go into yourself before you can go out to others.  Our voyage of discovery must not forget self. It is too easy to be distracted by others. Do we respect ourselves and do we respect others, that is do we respect everybody equally? Do we respect ourselves and the boys and girls in our care as persons?

The student you are tutoring at the moment needs something spiritual.  I was brought up Wesleyan Methodist in Wales and my Welsh peasant mother quoted freely from the Christian bible. She had a saying for everything, and she invested her sayings with authority by saying it was in the bible. However, she was a modest woman with a sense of sin (or sinfulness) and she always added “And if it isn’t, it should be.” She didn’t so much articulate it but she was a genuine anti-bureaucrat, a true inclusive believer who would be a credit to any faith.

My Jamaican mother-in-law introduced me to the writings of Krishamurti who survived being brought up as a child to believe he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.  He said that “organised religion is the frozen thought of man” We need to remember this when we are considering the effects of religion on our spirituality

            Great religious teachers had a sense of sin that informed their ideas of tolerance, respect and inclusion. Organisers and managers in churches and schools as well as other institutions seem obsessed with selection and categorising criteria which enables some to be included and welcomed and others to be rejected and cast out. Teachers could not exclude.

GG goes on to give a list of literature that he believes will help the student MH is tutoring to go into her self (V Naipaul collection of short stories Miguel St; Samuel Selwyn Lonely Londoners).

GG      I went to a church primary school in Wales.  We helped to devalue ourselves.

I went to grammar school – by coincidence or even accident - where I was never absent and never late during the first term.  From the second term my attendance went down to 50%, and remained that way until the first term of Year 11 when I was warned that I might have to see the Head, a fate worse than death! I attended regularly and I did well from there on. Good A’ Levels. Admission – again almost by accident – to the University of Bangor where I was elected President of the Students’ Union - and my inferiority complex fell away from me like a snake skin. Year after graduation won a scholarship to the University of Vienna to study Theatre and Opera.  Returned and married my wife who was from Jamaica whom I’d met whilst she was an undergraduate at Bangor and a while later we went to Jamaica.  Initially for six years but I ended up staying fifteen years.  Left when the political regime changed hands because I was a political activist with the opposition party.

People of the diaspora can put down roots anywhere!  Indigenous stay-at-home Whites unfortunately seem to have no roots – look at the history of empire.  Black people wherever they are want to belong and to be hospitable, to be welcomed and welcoming.  The important thing is that we have is exactly that story to tell.  Our real story is outside the establishment. It does not need validation by others – it is new, novel, original, instinctive, intuitive, spontaneous, truly creative and regenerating. That is what life is about – and education should be similarly emancipating.

GG once again provides MH with useful information and advice regarding her tutee.  For example the strategy of getting the student to teach others

GG      How do we relate to those in our care. Believing in their infinite potential.

            Recalls teaching in a tough school in North Kensington. Teaching 16 year olds who had decided to stay on beyond the leaving age of 15. A popular course in geography because it looked so closely at the local community. Making a special study of graffiti with all its multicultural wisdom. An Inspector of Schools had come to assess GG to see if he merited a Head of Department ‘A’ Allowance, somewhat less than a pound a week in the late sixties. But the family was penniless and needed it! Suddenly a boy came into the class late and enthusiastically blurted out that there was a new piece of graffiti outside the school gate. Now this was learning and what an opportunity to show the Inspector how well the students were engaged. “Listen everybody. What was this latest creative wall art?” “F--- off” was the eloquent reply. The Inspector maintained her dignified poise. GG looked up to heaven for inspiration and for a sign that his fifty quid was safeguarded.

            The inspiration came – “Did it look as though it was done by somebody coming into school or leaving the school?” There was a terrific discussion about the sources of alienation and disillusionment – and the quality of schooling and the difference between schooling and education, No philosophers or Latin scholars but deep insights into life in North Kensington in the Swinging Sixties. But it was when the Inspector commented “A splendid lesson, Mr German” that he knew he’d got the fifty quid. And it was the students what done it!

MH     You know one thing I can say about my father is that respect of self and others was always key for him – it’s what I call the difference between discipline and manners. I was brought up to have manners, in schools they encourage discipline. ‘Manners’ mean you have respect for all regardless of power. Indeed power has a great deal of responsibility attached to it. ‘Discipline’ means you respect / defer to those who are more powerful than you.

            You know I never heard my father cuss a teacher.  Indeed if I had a complaint about a teacher the first thing he would say would be have I behaved myself in school?  He don’t want to hear that I’ve been rude to a teacher or that I haven’t done my work.  Any how I couldn’t answer yes I know I better not complain because I would be getting a beating that night. What a shock to my system when I became a teacher and would find parents, Black parents cussing me in front of their child, simply because I scolded the child for not being attentive in class. The idea that you went to school to learn, and that alone, was beyond the understanding of many children I have taught, I know because I asked them what they were in school for and at best they would shrug at worse they would not  respond at all!

GG      Your father didn’t allow himself to be provoked.  He had clear strategies.  Unlike one father I had to deal with recently.  His child is in a Learning Support Unit (LSU) and there’s a black teacher in this unit working to help his child but the father sees him as a traitor not an ally.  I had to point out this potentially good alliance to him. When I did so, he wanted to know my personal and political positions as well. I had to explain that I did not  compartmentalise myself. The child was my number one concern, and my concern was with taking action not just exchanging letters.

There was another complication in that the father had instructed his child to retaliate! I had to explain that this complicated matters. I understood however where he was coming from. We exchanged letters and emails and telephone calls. We met again and worked out a practical modus operandi. His son is a central part of the programme.


GG      Network to give a service so there has to be:

(a)    commitment to values and principles –

  • equality
  • freedom
  • justice

values for democracy

  • belief in children
  • unconditional love that must be rigorous not sloppy.

            I often tell the pupils I work with “I believe in you but don’t let me go to a hearing and they surprise me. Win or lose we win because you will come through this situation transformed.

(b)           Identify partners in the network – people who share in the principles and values.  Don’t waste time and energy with people who don’t because they are basically obdurate. 

I was in Nottingham doing advocacy  training and was surprised to meet a woman in the group who was committed to exclusion.  Breaking through to her was very hard but she went away thinking.

MH     I remember the first conference I went to on social exclusion and I met the girls that CEN had placed on a radical Smooth Moves personal development course..

GG      Thirteen girls had been rejected and now twelve out of thirteen are on a professional career path. They assist us with sessions we run for teachers in training. They can hold them spellbound for a couple of hours at a time. They know life at the sharp end. These are the ones we need to consult. They don’t cost the earth but they are like precious stones.

MH     What I liked about the mentoring you did, unlike so many community mentoring approaches, is that you mentor girls.  Many focus on boys which I think is wrong. Boys and girls need male mentors.  Girls and boys need female mentors.  Yet  male on male mentoring gives the impression that women are failing their boys. I don’t know a mother that only wants her daughter to succeed.  Indeed they are more likely to want their sons to succeed.  Equally I don’t know of a successful male who cannot name a woman being behind his success – like Jamie Foxx honouring his grandmother when he picked up us Oscar for ‘Ray’.

GG      I have lots of reservations about mentoring and counselling. 

Who is doing the mentoring? – Often a successful high achieving Black person who is there to pick up the pieces! I would tell anybody who is asked to be a mentor to tell the school that s/he will do it for a month and then advise the school about the structural and procedural changes it needs to institute in order to make the school inclusive and welcoming for everybody. Otherwise the mentor’s role is everlasting fire-fighting or crisis-management.

Ref      “My mother who fathered me”

I deal mostly with mothers.  Generally the establishment has a pathological  view of Black women even though it is mainly Black women who are holding things together.  However, the phenomenon of absent Black fathers has to be understood in its historical context and programmes of schooling and bringing up children developed accordingly

The real problem is that teachers often cannot relate to Black boys because of the stereotypes that exist as barriers to understanding and productive relationships. 

We need to give close consideration to the National Curriculum. For example, two areas that lend themselves to the multicultural, equal opportunities, non-discriminatory approach are Maths and Science which, because of their content/assessment orientation, are often the most resistant.

Ref      “Neil Ross, Conabor: Science and multicultural education” develops positive imaginative programmes for supplementary schools.

GG      It is important for teachers to learn about learning as much as perhaps as about teaching.

Black activists have frequently been inveigled into the establishment, at great cost to accountability and progress towards parity and equality.

Ref      Lorna CORK: Supporting Black Pupils and Parents.

GG      Every preamble to a thesis is looking at previous research and gives a lot of space to it. It is helpful to examine exclusions research since 1985 and to try to assess the extent to which very valid recommendations have been ignored. Very little has changed, and of late the situation has deteriorated even further.

I would suggest getting a dozen people together, including perhaps a majority of young people, to draw up a people’s educational manifesto.

Can you elaborate on this part too –it is so important I got too engrossed to take decent notes of what you actually said and I don’t want to adlib and misrepresent the spirit of your message!

            When I mentioned Uncle Tom, I was talking about survival. He is easy to denigrate, to condemn. But one needs to appreciate the context of slavery, apartheid and lynch-law. And then how did the radicals emerge? What were the factors that gave them the courage to bring about change. Black history written by Black people – studied by Black people, critiqued by them, refined and evaluated by them, rewritten as necessary, discussed as part of an open productive dialogue. Presented in such a way that every can identify at least part of it to start with and say with a sense of awe and wonder A fi wi! This is ours.

MH     How do we achieve that solidarity?  I notice that even though you are White you   are politically Black, yet this ability to identify with the struggle of Black people doesn’t appear to be at the expense of de-centring your identity.

GG      That’s because I am not a denier but an affirmer.  I seek to promote empathy           (what does it mean to walk in someone else’s moccasins?)