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‘Missed opportunity’ as school votes against honouring pioneering black headteacher

Beckford School will become simply 'West Hampstead Primary School'

03 December, 2020 — By Tom Foot

Beryl Gilroy was one of the country’s first black headteachers

THE daughter of a black headteacher has spoken of a “missed opportunity” after her former primary school chose not to rename itself after her pioneering mother.

Professor Darla Jane Gilroy said her family had been “very disappointed” after Beckford School announced it would be rebranded simply as “West Hampstead Primary School” from next September, warning: “Too often the achievements of black people are airbrushed out of history.”

Her mother, Beryl Gilroy, was one of the country’s first black headteachers and is considered an important figure in education.

The majority of parents and staff at the school in Dornfell Street learned about the ­origins of its name for the first time this summer after the New Journal revealed that “Beckford” honoured a sugar plantation owner who amassed a fortune using slaves in Jamaica.

Amid the Black Lives Matters protests and pledges to campaign for racial equality, governors agreed to remove the name and a campaign  began for Ms Gilroy to be honoured for her time in charge between 1969 to 1982.

She is described by the British Library as one of “the most extensively published Caribbean writers of her time”. A petition signed by hundreds of former pupils – including Oscar-winning actor Emma Thompson – called for the school to be renamed after Ms Gilroy, but governors said yesterday that more than half of parents and children preferred “West Hampstead Primary School”.

Prof Darla Jane Gilroy

Prof Darla Jane Gilroy, who is a celebrated designer and director at London College of Fashion, told the New Journal: “It is very disappointing because it seems to be more about disguising the link to Beckford, rather than celebrating this 50-year link to inclusion and diversity that the school has.

“They may as well carry on calling it Beckford School and teach the kids about the slave trade. What’s the point in changing it? It is such an extraordinary history that the school has, and so I think it is a missed opportunity.”

She added: “Too often the achievements of black people are airbrushed out of history. We are at a seminal moment in change, we are all fighting against systemic racism. “This is the time to seize the moment. The question I want to ask of Beckford is, do black lives matter?”

The school had originally been called Broomsleigh School, but in 1929 it was changed to be named after William Beckford, a former MP and London Mayor who was said to have had 3,000 slaves.

Professor Gilroy, who lives in West Hampstead, added: “As a family we’ve been really touched by the people who have taken up the campaign and emails of support we have had. It’s been great for us as a family as we come up to the 20th anniversary of her death. A lot of people got in touch saying they had uncovered this story they knew nothing about.”

One of Ms Gilroy’s books and, below, teaching at Beckford

Hundreds of parents, pupils and staff were asked to vote on three options.

Half of the staff had favoured “Gilroy School” and the school had said: “Given the reasons to be reconsidering the name of the school, re-naming this great school after Beryl Gilroy would be the perfect way of addressing contemporary concerns while also honouring the school’s history of successful inclusion and diversity.”

But pupils and parents at the school – which is in the Fortune Green ward – overwhelmingly voted otherwise. A breakdown of the voting showed that of 393 children to vote, just 20 per cent selected “Gilroy Primary School”. Of the 220 parents to vote, 53 per cent wanted “West Hampstead Primary School” to be used.

The family of William Beckford owned a large house near what is now West Hampstead Thames­link station.

The rebranding of the school has allowed the headteacher, Sam Drake, to put in place a “new curriculum” that will include lessons on its history, the slave trade and William Beckford.

Beckford Primary School

Mr Drake said: “The renaming of the school gives us an unparalleled opportunity to design and enact a new curriculum that is in line with our school values. I, along with the rest of the staff, cannot wait to share it with our children whilst ensuring that our school continues to be a special place for them to learn and thrive.”

A new school uniform will be introduced alongside the new name in September next year. It has not yet been decided whether existing pupils will have to buy new clothes.

Chair of governors Madhavan Raman added: “Whilst we are starting a new chapter in our school’s history, we mustn’t forget the pivotal role that Beckford Primary School has played in so many people’s lives over the years.”

An archive at the British Library is being set up and some of Ms Gilroy’s books are being republished on April 4 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of her death.

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