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Seventies striking schoolteacher returns to Stepney

Local hero Chris Searle, a student teacher who was sacked for publishing a collection of his pupil’s poems returned to Stepney.
Chris was joined by BBC Radio 4 broadcaster Alan Dein at the Local History Library on November 12 as part of the Globe Road Poetry Festival.
In 1973 Chris was working as a teacher at Sir John Cass School and wanted to publish a book of his pupils’ poems. The headmaster, after initial agreement, refused. He refused to be beaten. With the support of the Bishop of Stepney and well-known local union leader Jack Dash, he raised £200 for the pupils’ book, Stepney Words.
In response the school’s governors showed him the door, and 100 East London headteachers announced that he would not find employment anywhere else.
Sir John Cass pupils hit back. Over 500 pupils went on strike, refused to attend classes and marched to Trafalgar Square with banners flying, demanding Chris’ reinstatement. They made local and national news – and a Stepney woman who the press claimed had been knocked down by demonstrators instead came out in support of the teenagers’ cause.
The pupils wrote Chris a poem and daubed ‘if he goes, we go’ on the school’s walls. Two years and one court case later, he was finally reinstated.
Chris published another book of his pupils’ poems, about life in the East End and wider issues like the campaign against apartheid. Once again he was pilloried by many in the press for his actions. He also became good friends with Blair Peach, a fellow East End teacher killed at an anti-racist demonstration in 1979.
He went on to train teachers overseas and become an adviser on multicultural education – and eventually even a headmaster.
Many of his pupils carried on writing poetry. The Basement Writers was a pioneering community arts group formed in Stepney by some of the students in the basement of St George’s Town Hall in Cable Street.
They were joined by writers of all ages, and the proceeds of Stepney Words were used to publish more work – which helped kickstart a movement of community-based publishing and poetry readings.
Chris was joined by former Basement Writers who read from Stepney Words and their later work. For some in the audience it was the first time they had seen their old schoolmates and fellow writers in decades.
Chris described the night as an “extraordinary event” while Alan Dein said “The story of Stepney Words and the Basemen Writers is inspirational for the borough and for new generations of writers to think that they can do it. One of the things the Basement Writers wanted to do is make writing accessible for all, to make you feel like you can contribute.”
Asma Begum, cabinet member for culture added “Chris’ story is part of a living Tower Hamlets legend. The message that art, culture and creativity should be for everyone is one that still resonates today and should inform our approach to learning and leisure.”