A NEW book uncovers how a Coventry headteacher, magistrate and councillor left school at 14 hardly able to read, write or add up – but was guided on his path by legendary Liverpool football boss Bill Shankly.
‘Thanks Shanks’, ghost-written by Earlsdon-based author and journalist Chris Arnot, tells the unlikely story of David Kershaw CBE, who went on to advise governments on schools policy and turn around several sink schools nationally.
“I was a tough, dirty central defender,” admitted the ex-Coventry council cabinet member for education, who since 2011 has become familiar with the rough and tumble of Coventry politics.
Councillor Kershaw also told the Coventry Observer he had until now been “too ashamed” to divulge his early academic shortcomings, particularly to his own pupils.
Badly failing the ’11-plus’ grammar school entrance exam, which would otherwise have offered the more conventional route out of his Bradford housing estate, had left its mark psychologically.
Of the former Coundon Court School head teacher, Arnot takes up the story: “What you may not have known was that he left school semi-literate with no qualifications whatsoever.
“The biography tells the story of how the legendary football manager Bill Shankly saw something in him that his head teacher did not,” Arnot told us.
Under former Scottish footballer Shankly from 1959 to 1974, Liverpool became a league and cup-winning force in English and European football.
It was to be Shanks’ own rags to riches tale, born in a small Scottish mining town.
The late Bill Shankly OBE is also still celebrated for coining the phrase: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”
‘Thanks Shanks’ explains why Shankly was such a pivotal figure in the life of David Kershaw, now aged 75.
The paths of Shankly, Manchester United great Denis Law and the young Kershaw crossed briefly, at Huddersfield Town Football Club in the 1950s.
Arnot says: “It was Shankly who eventually felt obliged to tell him that he was never going to make it as a professional footballer. ‘But,’ he added, ‘I think you’d be a great teacher.’
“He backed his judgement by paying for his protégé to make it into teachers’ training college.
“It is the first time Coun Kershaw has paid tribute to the legendary manager who broke his heart before changing his life.”
Coun Kershaw, now also honoured as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and having an honorary degree in education, told us: “I kept it under my hat as a head at school that I could hardly read and write.
“I used the situation a lot in assemblies for 30 years to explain how despite difficulties in life, from time to time, you can achieve great things. I did not told them that the lad I was talking about was actually me.
“In maturity, I’m more emotionally aware than I was. I thought I was a failure. I failed my 11-plus dramatically badly and I was ashamed. I didn’t want anyone to know.
“I had left school with great difficulties writing. I couldn’t do basic sums. I could play football, I was quite big.
“My head said to my mum: ‘Your David is a nice lad but he’s not very bright. He’s good at football.’
“… I am thankful to the people who saw something in me.”
After leaving school and playing for Bradford boys, he was part of Huddersfield Town’s then youth development version of an “under-21” team, and paid a ‘fiver’ per match.
His experiences of a secondary modern school and the deterministic fatalistic tendencies of the grammar school system clearly informed his life-perspective as a passionate advocate of comprehensive education, as a ‘Christian Socialist’.
Publishers say the book will appeal to football fans, educationalists and “anyone who enjoys a transformative tale of triumph against the odds”.
• Thanks Shanks is published by Takahe on November 20 at £10.95. ISBN: 9781908837097.