The ‘Gentle Giant’ Who Found Poetry In Inner-City Sheffield

Chris Searle returns to South Yorkshire to launch a memoir of his time in the north
December 1, 2022

As Sheffield Town Hall resonated with joyous sounds of old friends greeting each other once again, the aptly named Mandela Room was filled with more hugs than I’ve seen since the pandemic began. The occasion was the launch of a memoir by veteran educationist Chris Searle, and among those saying how glad they were that their paths crossed with his was the daughter of one of a group of retired Yemeni steelworkers whom he taught English. “They used to call him the ‘gentle giant’,” she recalled, “and he showed us that words and knowledge and education are powerful tools.”

Now aged 78 and still the tallest man in any room he enters, Chris Searle is retired from paid work but shows few signs of slowing down. He is, however, in a reflective mood, having just published his second volume of autobiography: The World Is In Our Words: A Life In Poetry. It tells the story of his more than three decades in South Yorkshire. It follows Isaac And I (2017), which centred on his earlier sacking as an east London schoolteacher for publishing a selection of pupils’ poems in a booklet called Stepney Words. Eight hundred kids went on strike in solidarity (I am proud to say I was one of them) and he eventually got his job back. But that’s another story and the new one is all about his time up north.

Chris Searle moved to Sheffield during the miners’ strike of 1984-1985 to take up a post advising the local authority on multicultural education and went on to become headteacher of Earl Marshal Comprehensive, a school not without its problems. He describes it as “serving some of the poorest and most struggling neighbourhoods in Sheffield: Pitsmoor, Fir Vale, Burngreave, Page Hall and Grimesthorpe. Yet it was also one of the culturally richest catchment areas in the city.”

The cover Of The World Is In Our Words, With Abtisam Mohamed Second From Left

Whereas some might regard it as problematic that the local population comprised mostly Pakistani, Yemeni, African and Caribbean people speaking a variety of languages, along with a minority of white children, Chris Searle sees diversity as both a strength and a resource. Different community groups were brought into school activities for everything from language lessons to cricket sessions, and before long the school became the first in the city to have a majority of black and Asian people on its board of governors.

He continued to teach - his description of the headteacher role as “fundamentally a teacher with extra responsibilities, not a manager” was guaranteed to raise the hackles of OFSTED – and several anthologies of pupils’ poems and stories were produced during his five and a half years at Earl Marshal. Today, as he reads out examples of the children’s writing, he seems almost back in his 1990s classroom. Treating his students’ stories with deep respect, he recites their words with great power. Remarkably, he appears to remember almost every child he has taught over more than 50 years at the chalk-face. Not just children but ex-steelworkers too, with an average age of 76, who once told him they didn’t need to be taught about adjectives because they lived there – they thought he’d said Attercliffe.

“Chris Searle’s memoirs can be read for the stories,” writes the redoubtable feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham in an introduction to The World Is In Our Words, “but they also remind us that ‘education’ comes from a word meaning ‘to draw out’ rather than pumping in and measuring by slide rule.” That’s precisely what underpins the critical literacy he teaches: reading and writing can lead to greater understanding and empathy, which in turn lead to stronger writing and a realisation that, in the words of educationist Paulo Freire, “critical understanding leads to critical action”. As Bob Marley put it more poetically, in a lyric from Redemption Song once adopted as the school motto: “None but ourselves can free our minds.”

Reflecting on this, Chris Searle talks about an event captured in a striking picture featured on the cover of his latest book. It was a fundraising fashion parade initiated and organised by a group of senior school students at Earl Marshal in 1994, during which they took the opportunity to comment on a harsh Asylum Bill then going through parliament. He recalls: “Wearing sharp new clothes and carrying a banner declaring ‘Resist the racist asylum law’, they paraded along their own catwalk and posed for a telling, handsome photograph in the Star. Point exposed, point made, all by themselves.”

Chris Searle With Abtisam Mohamed

Nearly 30 years later, the teenage girl from the Yemeni community standing second from left in that photograph is a qualified solicitor who represents Firth Park on Sheffield Council, and Councillor Abtisam Mohamed was just one of many who attended the book launch to pay respects to her former headteacher. As the one-time chair of governors Abdul Shaif joked, you usually have to die before people gather to say nice things about you, but at least Chris Searle was there to hear them. The mood music in the Town Hall has not always been so mellow, though, and the book details how the school’s controversial policy against permanent exclusions eventually caused a rift with the local education authority and the removal of both headteacher and governors.

The cover of Lives Of Love And Hope: A Collection Of Students Poetry

Chris Searle was not finished as a teacher, though. During a spell running the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre in Manchester, he held a series of writing workshops in that city’s schools resulting in the publication of Mandela, Manchester, a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday in 2008. He also did a stint volunteering to teach creative writing at a Mohawk reservation school in Canada. He took with him copies of the anthologies from Sheffield and introduced indigenous children to some of the poems and stories within. In this way, with the help of writing produced by children in Pitsmoor and Fir Vale, the ‘gentle giant’ inspired Mohawk youngsters thousands of miles away in eastern Ontario to find poetry in the world around them - and to find their own voices.

The World Is In Our Words and Isaac And I are both published by the Nottingham-based Five Leaves Publications.

Tony Harcup is a freelance writer, an emeritus fellow in journalism studies at the University of Sheffield, and a life member of the National Union of Journalists. He includes a chapter about his school years as a pupil of Chris Searle in the book Alternative Journalism, Alternative Voices.

Images courtesy of Tony Harcup