Inner-city headmistress called politically incorrect

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

January 25, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

LONDON -- Jane Brown, elementary school headmistress, ventured into the realm of American-style political correctness last week and you'd think she had brought in the bubonic plague.

As headmistress of a school in an extremely deprived London neighborhood, Ms. Brown turned down cut-rate student tickets to Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet" at the Royal Opera House.

Ms. Brown reportedly thought Shakespeare's tragedy was too violent and "entirely about heterosexual love."

Her fiat provoked even Prime Minister John Major to damn political correctness as exhibited by the instantly beleaguered Ms. Brown as "widely unpopular among parents."

British parents, Mr. Major told the House of Commons, "want their children to be taught in schools the basics of the English language, English history and all the things that will equip them for a proper adulthood."

It was not immediately clear what Mr. Major, whose own "back-to-basics" campaign has been dented by some of his ministers' wayward sex lives, might have meant by "a proper adulthood."

"Political correctness" is widely seen here as an American virus that threatens such British institutions as the monarchy, male domination of rugby and smoking where one damn well pleases. In the eyes of the true Brit, California is the seed bed of loony political correctness.

Ms. Brown's Kingsmead Primary School, which includes a nursery school, has pupils between 4 and 11 years old. Shakespeare is not routinely taught in British schools until the secondary level.

Pat Corrigan, education chairman of the Hackney Borough Council, which oversees Ms. Brown's school, called the ban "an act of ideological idiocy and cultural philistinism, betraying no knowledge of either great art or equal opportunities."

After a 75-minute meeting Thursday with her boss Ms. Brown stepped outside of her school and issued a written statement. After expressing "dismay . . . at the distress . . . caused . . . by the unwelcome media attention," she said:

"Kingsmead follows a full and wide curriculum which includes trips to the theater and involvement with arts projects. These are a vital part of the children's learning. I only hope the opportunity to see a professional performance of 'Romeo and Juliet' will arise again."

Too late for this year. A spokesman for the Royal Opera said it will probably ask Kingsmead again next year.

Parents at Kingsmead who would speak to reporters were critical of Ms. Brown's ban, but spoke of her as running a good school.

The school serves children from a 1950s-style housing project where 3,000 people live in one of the poorest neighborhoods in England with a high percentage of minority groups and religions.

Crime and unemployment rates are both high. Many of the 155 children at the school receive free lunches. Many of their parents are on welfare.

"The school is very well run and the children learn fast," said Bob Russell, whose son Kevin, 4, is in the Kingsmead nursing school. "They have books that show black people, and they are trying to teach children about other countries. I think that's very good."

Helen Curtis, a 15-year-old former pupil, said Ms. Brown dealt severely with derogatory remarks about sex and race.

"She's very strict on these things but we could always have a joke with her," Helen said. "She said that we could even call her Jane if we wanted to."

Ms. Brown, 36, has been a teacher since 1979 and headmistress at Kingsmead since 1991. Her other purported excesses of political correctness include scrapping Santa Claus and nativity plays over Christmas and telling pupils they should not call teachers "sir."

A colleague who defended her said she was not trying to promote homosexuality by passing on the indisputably heterosexual "Romeo and Juliet."

"All she was trying to do was prevent the children being fed a constant diet of gang fights and killings," he said. "The school is on the edge of a notorious [project], and showing yet more male stereotyping, feuding and knives is no joke.

"Shakespeare wrote brilliantly about gang fights, teen-age sexuality and suicide," he said. "But we want children to look at other worlds. We want them to see that you can be a boy and be gentle."

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