Chagossians in Crawley: Where music acts as a bridge to education and success

Mauritian Diaspora in UK

A Conversation with Patrick Allen, award winning school teacher and author

Patrick Allen, who was here last week in the context of the International Conference on ‘Mauritian Diaspora in Question: Trajectories and Connections’, is currently a PhD research student at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. He is an award winning school teacher and author, with more than 30 years teaching experience. He is the winner of the Guardian Award for Secondary Teacher of the Year (2004) and the National Union of Teachers Teacher Award (2015) for “inspirational leadership of a music group”. His book Singing Matters won the Times Educational Supplement Schoolbook Award (1999).

But his record goes far beyond his personal realisations. He gives us in this interview a profound insight into how his assiduous attention to Chagossian students, who were for the most part being marginalized in their school in Crawley, UK, were transformed into achievers with the help of their music teacher, Patrick Allen. These children showed fantastic inherent talents to such a point that the school administration feared that it might become ‘famous’ for having produced achievers out of its Chagossian students and that, too, not solely in music but in terms of academic achievement as well. Real life tales of personal transformation like what happened to the Chagossian students in the Crawley school should be told and retold to teach all how one can transcend artificial and self-imposed bounds.

* Tell us about how you came to be associated with the Chagossians in the UK?

My involvement with the Mauritian diaspora has been as a teacher of music at a school in Crawley, in Sussex (near Gatwick Airport), where I worked until July of this year. I have been a teacher for 30 years, and have worked closely with young Mauritians and Seychellois of Chagossian origin for the past seven years. My encounter with these young people has been a significant and life changing moment in my long career.

There are nearly 3,000 members of the Chagossian-Mauritian community in Crawley. They arrived in the UK after alterations to the British Nationality Act in the early 2000s, having lost their right to return to the Chagos Islands when a High Court ruling allowing their return was overturned by the Privy Council.

Mauritians would know that the Chagossians, victims of geopolitical manoeuvres of immense significance, lost their island home to make way for an American military airbase, were removed mainly to Mauritius but with some deposited in the Seychelles. They were tricked into accepting pitiful compensation and settled mainly in the poorest parts of urban areas, but mainly Port Louis. It has been a shameful moment in British history.

There are nearly 3,000 members of the Chagossian-Mauritian community in Crawley. My interviews and conversations with them reveal they felt they were the lowest of the low. In fact, Chagossians lacked the relevant experience, formal education and certification – and the confidence – to progress in their new homelands; they were not accustomed to urban living and experienced the two-fold marginalisation of being both Creoles and Chagossians. I will not say they lacked the skills, for good reason – as I will later reveal.

* How did it work out initially insofar as integration of the Chagossians into the larger Crawley community was concerned?

Their arrival in the UK was haphazard and unplanned. It began with a pioneer group who came to test the new nationality law, and protest their cause. They arrived in Crawley and West Sussex, simply because Gatwick Airport is in Crawley borough. It turned out that as British citizens they legally had every right to be in the UK and the local authorities had a duty to make sure they had enough for food and shelter.

This was not an arrival in paradise. No plan existed to support them in housing, education or welfare and the intricacies of the nationality law and the enormous costs of travel and claiming citizenship for children and partners meant families were divided for long periods of time. Families shared cramped accommodation and the Chagossians found themselves in a hostile and challenging environment.

 * What about the response of the larger Crawley community and institutions? Were they prepared to welcome the Chagossians?

I worked in one of three Crawley secondary (comprehensive) schools which served the poorer areas of Crawley, where they mainly settled. The education authority and the school had no plan or extra money for their arrival, and we were never informed as to who they were or why they were arriving. The attitude of the school and the community to the group was officially welcoming, but privately and actually hostile. They encountered racism in the communities where they settled, and unfriendliness and racism in the school.

UK schools are ranked according to high-stakes testing at age 16. It will not surprise you to learn that the worst performing schools are in the most deprived areas. The arrival of this group with little English, from families who often had little confidence or experience in formal education made the school managers nervous. Add to this institutional and individual racism by some staff and pupils, and a lack of understanding of their culture and educational performance – or potential – and you have the unwelcoming environment which greeted many Chagossians in Crawley schools, particularly as their numbers increased.

* How was it in the classroom for the Chagossian kids?

My own initial experience as a teacher was that they tended to clam up in class, and did not want to stand out or be noticed. Very often they had no idea what was going on, because their grasp of English was so poor. I was intrigued by them because they didn’t look or act like any group we’d had before – but I could understand bits of what they were saying in their own language. As a French speaker I started to chat to many of them and started to understand something of who they were and where they had come from.

By 2009 there were several Chagossians in every group I taught, but usually in the lower groups. This was due to an inadequate testing system on entry, which was English medium only. Of course this put most of them in bottom sets for all subjects, even if they were latent geniuses. Absurdly they were even in the bottom set for French. This later became one of the causes I fought in the school. The English language support classes in the school became overcrowded, but instead of recruiting more staff the school closed it, leaving many students high and dry.

* So the ‘revelation’ about the “latent geniuses” came about when?

In spring 2009 I set my classes a free composition project. In a year 9 class, three Mauritians decided to work together. At first they worked on drums and small percussion and immediately drew my attention with the skilled way they played together with a tight ensemble and intricate cross rhythms. I called the class to listen. This unnoticed and sometimes despised group of students suddenly were impressing their peers!

Fired up by their success, one asked me: “Can we sing?”

“Of course,” I said.

A few moments later he returned. “Can we sing in our own language?” he asked.

They had actually been banned from speaking their own language in the school, as there were so many of them. The management said it was for their own good, but to me it had been borderline illegal and totally counter-productive. Apart from demolishing self-esteem, it also stopped them helping each other learn and make sense of their new environment.

 As you can imagine I was quite surprised to see so many key musical skills on display. Even the triangle player had exquisite timing. Also there was a 100 percent success and participation from this particular ethnic group in that class. They had a shared musical understanding, and quite a different grasp of rhythmic groupings and emphasis to English students.

Intrigued, I asked if they had any friends who played. I set up informal meetings so I could let them loose on instruments to see what they could do. Dozens of Chagossian students showed up to share their skills. The results were always impressive, whoever was playing. All of them seemed to be musical, be it in instrumental playing, singing or dance.

At this period I was simply interested in discovering what they could do and sharing it with as many people as possible. This group were becoming a force to be reckoned within the school and the more concerts, assemblies and school performance they did, so rose their self-esteem and the regard of their peers and their teachers. The Mauritians were less regarded with suspicion, as people who ‘smell’. They were now becoming admired, even ‘cool’.

Their musical skills were exceptional, as was their commitment and dedication to music and sharing their culture. I have rarely seen such well-developed ensemble skills, such confident and expressive improvisation or so much passion for a shared culture – in their case the sega.

Where did they learn this? Some had learned from family, friends, some had relatives or who made instruments. A surprising number had relatives in professional bands, including strong links with Cassiya. Others hadn’t played much before, but still sang and played well, fully understanding the disciplines of sega music.

And none of this had been formally taught.

* How about your colleagues in the school, those who were initially hostile towards the Chagossian kids?

Many teachers in the school were now noticing their Mauritian students. Many could see there was a potential that maybe they’d overlooked. The Mauritians themselves also looked at school differently. It was no longer a frightening place of failure, another branch of the hostile world of officialdom that had worked against their people for so long. They started to feel they belonged. It was the beginning of an engagement on both sides.

The core group of drummers, singers and dancers went from strength to strength. Over the following five years, they achieved the following:

1.      Numerous performances including the Royal College of Music, Birmingham Town Hall and Symphony Hall, Chichester Cathedral, The Roundhouse and at SOAS

2.      Numerous recordings and broadcasts for BBC Radio 3 at Maida Vale and Salford Media City

3.      Representing the UK in the “Let the Peoples Sing” international festival

4.      Projects with the BBC Singers

5.      A performance at the Royal Geographical Society

6.      Winning local and regional awards for music

7.      Workshops and lectures at schools and universities

8.      Recording for Rihanna

The group became the best thing the school had ever produced! However this took place in the context of numerous battles with a school management that still did not want the school to be seen as ‘famous’ for the talents of this particular ethnic group.

* Would you say the “engagement” would ultimately have an incidence on the educational performance of the Chagossian students?

That’s the most exciting outcome – the extent to which those who were fully involved with the group have succeeded educationally. It kept them in school and became an incentive to achieve, so that they could continue their music. Of the 15 core members who are now 18 or over, 9 have achieved educational standard to university entry level, and all achieved sufficient qualifications to enter further education, apprenticeships and employment.

Music was the bridge and the motor of their learning. But it was not just the music. It was the dignity and pride they were granted by feeling that they and their culture were welcome in the school. That the school was a place which valued them and where they had come from.

This does not mean, however, that we left their culture in static form once we had welcomed it. We always tried to combine their skills and musical attitude with music from many other cultures so there would be a two-way process of musical learning. Certainly they learned from us the importance of planning and rehearsing. We learned from them some things we have lost: spontaneity, passion, involvement, sharing and a social and human purpose for music.

* That must have been a rather unique experience in the UK: music acting as a bridge to education and success? An experience worth replicating in societies with disadvantaged and vulnerable groups?

Unfortunately UK schools have become very focused on delivering data, and school managers sometimes forget about the human beings they are teaching. I have stopped teaching to complete the PhD to remind educators of the importance of arts in the curriculum, and of having a culturally flexible curriculum and exam system.

* Published in print edition on 11 December 2015

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