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Just another brick in the wall?

2 October 07 11:53 GMT
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Everyone's heard Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall - but the story of how a handful of children got to sing on the track recalls an era of starkly different schooling values from those held today.

It was a tough, inner-city comprehensive, but Islington Green has ended up becoming entwined in the public imagination with one of music's biggest non-conformist anthems of all time - Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall.

And at the heart of the story of how a group of school children from north London came to sing on one of music's most iconic records is a maverick music teacher who used to chain smoke in class and swear at his students.

The song - punctuated throughout with the line "We don't need no education" - was written by Pink Floyd's Roger Waters and was inspired by his own schooling in the 1950s. It was a protest against the strict regime he felt had tried to suppress children, rather than inspire them.

But in 1979, when the band was recording the album The Wall, education was changing and they were in a studio just around the corner from one of the schools at the vanguard of the new comprehensive movement.

Islington Green was one of the biggest comps in London, and a struggling one. A new head teacher had been drafted in to turn it around.

Margaret Maden's aim was to introduce a more progressive teaching style, for lessons to be "informal but not sloppy". It was this vision that resulted in the appointment of music teacher Alun Renshaw.

'Bizarre' lessons

The borough's music inspector asked the head to employ a very gifted teacher who no-one else was "willing to take the risk on". Mr Renshaw certainly wasn't like any other member of staff. He smoked in class, swore at his students and fellow teachers and wore the "tightest jeans he could possibly get into".

Lessons were often bizarre, including going round the school hitting walls and listening to the sound they made. But for his students, he provided a safe place to be, where they could be themselves.

"I had this intense, emotional home life and it gave me hope that there was something beyond the misery of my existence," says former student Tabitha, who sang on the record.

Caroline, who also sang, was bullied because she was from a wealthy family.

"Very quickly I gravitated towards the music department, because it was a safe place to be," she says. "Otherwise I don't honestly know how I would have got through."

Cause celebre

It was just an average school day when Pink Floyd's manager and sound recordist turned up looking for children to sing on the record.

Waters was pleased with his song, but knew he needed another element to make it work. "I had this sound in my head of kids, London kids," he says.

Bypassing the head teacher's office, they ended up in the music room, where the unconventional Mr Renshaw was always looking for ways to broaden his students' musical horizons. He jumped at the chance.

He took a handful of excited kids out of class and marched them round to the studio. They were given the words and asked to sing.

"We sang like the school choir," says Caroline. "They said: 'No, we don't want you to do that, we want you to sing like you're in the playground.'"

Waters says he will always remember the first time he heard the final recording of the song.

"I still have hairs standing up on my arms and everywhere just remembering the sound... hearing those kids sing."

Yet the message of the song was not easy to swallow.

"When I saw what the lyrics were, of course I went: 'Oops'," says Mr Renshaw. "I had to go and talk to Margaret about it. By that time of course it was a bit too late to back down."

She was not happy but had no idea of the extent of the trouble the song would cause. She found the criticism of her and the school hard to take.

"It became a sort of cause celebre and it just felt as though the whole world had crashed in on us, or on me particularly," she says.

"That was really very, very hard to take because we had built up the school into something. It was good and it was getting better. "

The pupils were also upset when they weren't allowed to be in the video for the song because they didn't have Equity cards. Stage-school students had to mime the words.

For singing on the album, the children got tickets to a Pink Floyd concert, an album, a single and - most importantly - a certain celebrity around school.

Disillusioned with the education system, Mr Renshaw moved to Australia shortly after. "One could see and feel the clouds of conservatism heading towards the school system at the time," he says.

'Eccentric nutter'

Ms Maden went on to another teaching post and the pupils who'd sung on the track also started to leave. They have gone on to lead varied lives, but some feel let down by the education they got.

"I don't think I learnt anywhere near as much as I could have done," says Caroline. "If I'd been at a far more disciplined school, then an awful lot more time would have been taken up with teaching and much less with crowd control."

Some launched a bid in 2004 for thousands of pounds in unpaid royalties for singing on the record. The case is still pending.

But others credit Islington Green with opening up a whole new world to them.

"Islington Green gets slagged off, but we had really innovative teachers and it made me," says Tabitha, who went on to become a teacher herself.

"It didn't give me the perfect English education, but it gave me a sense that I could achieve things and that I should go on and do what I want," says Sybilla, now a solicitor and partner in a law firm.

The school itself is now due to close and be rebuilt as a city academy.

For Ms Maden, Another Brick in the Wall is a bitter-sweet episode in her teaching career.

"I'd rather the horrors of the Pink Floyd episode hadn't happened," she says. "But if I had to choose that happening as opposed to Alun Renshaw... I'd choose Alun being there any time, any day because he had a good effect on the children. He made a difference to their lives."

But Ms Maden knows most schools would not tolerate him today.

"I think schools, and I think children, need that kind of eccentric nutter, as long as they're producing the goods. A school couldn't have nothing but Aluns, it would collapse instantly, but just one like that is a very good idea."

ONE Life: The Brick in The Wall Kids is broadcast on Wednesday, 3 October at 2240 BST on BBC One.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Despite being only 12 at the time I can remember the 6 O'clock Thames News carrying the story of how upset people were at the kids from this school singing on the Pink Floyd Brick in the Wall track. I thought they were very lucky indeed and was very jealous. Ten years after that I started listening to a lot of Pink Floyd and felt a connection with the poor quality schooling I had experienced and the turmoil caused by my parents separation and divorce which happened simultaneously. I saw Roger Waters play live in Berlin just after the wall came down an experience I simply felt I couldn't miss and I ended up having the graphics of The Wall tattooed on my right arm! If it wasn't for the likes of Alun Renshaw and Roger Waters taking the occasional risk then the album may not have become as iconic as it has and life would be slightly more dull. I'm still a Pink Floyd / Roger Waters fan to this day. I'm still slightly jealous of the kids that sang for them, what an amazing story they have to pass on to their grandchildren. There may have been criticism at the time, but the pleasure that album has bought to millions all over the world was very much worth it. If only Pink Floyd would perform together again.. In memory of Syd?
Matt Evans, Farnborough

In 1979 I was 13 at an inner city comp. When this song went to No.1 some teachers panicked. One teacher wrote the lyrics on the blackboard and we had a class discussion about it. Another gave us a stern assembly about how the members of Pink Floyd all went to University. We just liked the song.
Graeme Jenkinson, Camberley, Surrey

People continue to misunderstand this song. It is not anti-education. It is against bad education. 'No dark saracasm in the classroom' - the image of the evil teacher putting his innocent little pupils through the mincer so they all turn out the same. This is a song about the kind of teacher who used to grab a boy by the hair behind his ears and slam his head into the desk. Funny how that kind of teaching puts you off 'education'.
Sophie B, London

I went to a secondary school in Sevenoaks, Kent. Every Wednesday we would go to a house meeting where one of the teachers would speak on a given subject. One one particular day cool Mr Evans started his presentation by playing Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall. The song was number one at the time and all the pupils sat in front of him aghast at the fact he was dealing with the subject matter head on! He proceeded to talk at length as to why the content of the song was incorrect and the importance of our education. As we exited the building I yelled out a loud "yes" to the suprise of those around me - for two reasons: 1) Mr Evans had completely lost the argument; 2) Pink Floyd had provoked a response by those in authority.
Andrew Luxton, Dartford, Kent

An interesting article showing the different sides of the story. This goes to show what is often overlooked, that at school different people value different types of teaching education according to their personality and what other parts of their school life are like.
Karl Chads, London, UK

My Dad actually taught Roger Waters and Syd Barrett at Cambridge High School. He was a bit upset when he heard the song!
Andrew Thomas, Swansea, UK

I went to an inner city London comp that sounds about the same as Islington Green and I can hand on heart say that I would have preferred a school with more discipline, to give me a better education. I don't think kids need any help being themselves at all, it comes naturally. Saying that, truth be told, I think some of the other kids needed more dicipline - I was pretty well behaved.
Justin Dowling, Bristol, UK

I performed Another Brick in the Wall live at school assembly, on the first day of my sixth form. The teachers knew that a 'rock band' was going to play... but not what we were going to play... or that I'd rounded up the lower school choir to enthusiastically "need no education"! We got a pretty stunned reaction from the teachers - and a LOT of kudos from the kids! Superb!
David, London

With what's gone on in the last 10 years in the education system let's just hope that the "dark clouds" of conservatism return again. It cannot be any worse than it is now. There has been a lot of waters under the bridge since that track was recorded.
Andy, Swindon, UK

I was at Spencer Park School when the song was released. Alun Renshaw used to teach there. I just remember thinking how lucky those kids were to be in a studio with my heroes of the day and would we have been there if Mr Renshaw had stayed.
Alan Lawson, Cape Town, South Africa

I wonder if those people who suggest that the education system "cannot be any worse than it is now" have ever actually been into a classroom recently? I just know that from my perspective, after fifteen years teaching, there is so much to be positive about. I think that young people are often exposed to an exciting and positive teaching and learning experience from dedicated and passionate professionals. The vast majority of kids are creative, talented, witty and willing to learn, but you never get any stories about them. It's always easier to turn attention on the negative minority and make that out as the norm. Oh, and yes, I teach in a comprehensive school within an area of high deprivation where a lot of young people have what some term a 'disadvantaged' background... Oh, and I always hated Pink Floyd, but that's another matter entirely.
Alistair Fitchett, Exeter


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