Naz Bokhari, 1937-2011


Naz Bokhari was the first Muslim headteacher of a British secondary school. But this was not something he bragged about. Above all, what mattered to him was not that he was a Muslim headteacher, but that he was a good one.

Syed Nawazish Bokhari was born in the Punjabi city of Sialkot in August 1937. His father was a headteacher, and often told young Nawazish that the respect accorded to a teacher should be second only to that given to a parent.

Unusually bright, Naz had completed a degree in history and politics by the age of 18, and took a job lecturing in history at a local college. By the 1960s, however, many of his contemporaries were seeking out new opportunities in Britain. Taught by British schoolmasters in the final years of the Raj, Mr Bokhari felt an affinity for their values and traditions. And so he, too, left for London.

Initially, he found a job with a men’s clothing company. But racism was widespread and he was overlooked for promotion several times. Baffled and frustrated, he sought refuge in the values his father had taught him: he decided to return to the classroom.

He began at Cardinal Pole secondary in east London. This was 1967, and Mr Bokhari would regularly hear resounding thwacks emanating from nearby classrooms, as staff members wielded the cane. He would merely shrug in response: he needed nothing more powerful than a withering stare.

He did not suffer rudeness, but he always made time for his pupils. Later in his career, when one boy began writing him complaint letters about school toilets, uniforms and sports, Mr Bokhari sought him out and befriended him.

Despite ongoing racism from parents and pupils, he was rapidly promoted. Eventually, he rose to become deputy head at east London’s Haggerston School in 1975: the first Muslim deputy of a British secondary. Ten years later, as newly appointed head of Ernest Bevin School in south-west London, he became the first Muslim secondary head.

This, however, was not something he chose to broadcast: although Islam played a significant role in his own life, it was incidental to his professional career. He merely wanted to be the best teacher he could, to help pupils in the best ways he could. In later life, it was a point of personal pride that he was awarded an OBE for services to education, rather than to the Muslim community. His responsibility, he felt, was to society at large, rather than a specific section of it.

However, he knew that many white parents would be wary of sending their children to a school with an Asian head and largely non-white roll. And so he conducted extensive outreach work at local primaries, speaking directly to parents. He realised, too, that the best way to overcome racism was through good results. Ernest Bevin’s A*-C GCSE pass rate rose from 18 per cent in 1999 to 60 per cent in 2003.

But his efficiency and productivity – in his spare time he founded the Muslim Teachers’ Association, chaired the Muslim Council of Britain’s education sub-committee and helped judge the Teaching Awards – were not always apparent. He was renowned for his carrier-bag filing system: his paperwork was stored in an endless succession of plastic bags. It was apparent disarray, but Mr Bokhari always knew where everything was.

Office space not filled with paperwork was taken up with buckets. At the time, Ernest Bevin’s buildings were rundown and leak-ridden, and Mr Bokhari saw no reason not to suffer alongside the rest of his staff. He deliberately chose a leaky room for his office. When he retired in 2002, colleagues presented him with a bucket, painted gold and signed by all staff.

A dedicated family man, he enjoyed relaxing in front of TV soaps in the evening. He loved cricket, and would obsessively scan cricket-related stats. Alternatively, he would gleefully gossip about the royal family: had he lived slightly longer, he would have been glued to royal wedding coverage.

He did, however, live long enough to see the birth of his first grandchild, before succumbing to lung cancer.

Naz Bokhari died on 1 March. He is survived by his wife, Rizwana, and children Hina and Harris

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