11 APRIL 2003

The west-London school which became notorious when its head, Philip Lawrence, was murdered was transformed by Marie Stubbs in 17 months despite cynicism from some teachers and clashes with governors. She tells her recipe for success

The triumph of traditional values

Marie Stubbs has a message for the world. Now 63, she is the dynamic grandmother who transformed the west London comprehensive where the head teacher, Philip Lawrence, was murdered. Next week sees the publication of her book, Ahead of the Class, a blow-by-blow account of how St George's Roman Catholic comprehensive in Maida Vale was taken, in just 17 months, from the brink of closure to being praised by the Ofsted inspectors. It is a story of triumph over adversity through determination and hard work. But it is also a warts-and-all tale of fallings out, power struggles and disappointments.

Marie Stubbs was no ordinary head. For a start, she is married to Sir William Stubbs, the former chairman of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority who was fired by the former Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, after last year's A-level fiasco. During her career she was described as a "formidable superhead". Her clipped Scots tones invite comparison with Miss Jean Brodie, and for years, her glamorous image has attracted attention.

She is what you might call a head teacher with attitude. "There are some people who think I was a pain in the butt, a bit of a maverick," she says. "No head should seek to be loved and popular. If people put up with you, that's all you can ask. I was struggling for their minds and hearts. Nobody wants to feel that people are trying to undermine them and making life difficult when they are sweating and pushing to get things done." Her recipe for success is to apply traditional values especially manners, uniform and no chewing gum and to focus on the children. Her hope is that schools and leaders everywhere can learn from her experience.

St George's became the most notorious school in the country when Philip Lawrence was stabbed to death outside the school gates in 1995 while protecting a student from attack by knife-wielding youths. Only three years ago, the school was facing permanent closure. Margaret Ryan, Mr Lawrence's successor, was assaulted by a pupil and the school shut its doors for two weeks amid claims that it was out of control. A pupil needed hospital treatment after another fight; a teacher received whiplash injuries; and staff cars were vandalised. Ofsted inspectors declared the school to be "failing", and Westminster Council paid 400,000 to private contractors to take it over.

It was into this troubled environment that Lady Stubbs was parachuted six months after retiring from another Westminster Catholic school where she had been head for 13 years. She wasted no time in setting up a task force including two deputy heads from her former school. And she hit the headlines when she told journalists that her appointment heralded a return to "old-fashioned good manners" and that she would demand that pupils call her headmistress rather than head teacher.

After shaking hands with every pupil, Lady Stubbs set out her "zero tolerance" policy on behaviour and appearance, and her expectations of courtesy and consideration. Gradually, things began to improve. Children began to arrive on time and in school uniform. They walked rather than ran, and no longer chewed gum. She worked quickly to transform the atmosphere, arguing that children would learn well only in an environment that made them feel valued. She was shocked to discover that students not in lessons were locked out of the building, and resolved to create a more welcoming regime.

School buildings were rejuvenated with bright paint, the playground was redesigned, and breakfast and after-school clubs introduced, as well as a grand May Ball for final-year students. These were 16-year-olds in their GCSE year the school does not have a sixth form.

Lady Stubbs persuaded Harrow, the public school, to share their sports pitches with her students, and invited celebrities to the school Kevin Keegan, Ralph Fiennes, Cherie Booth, Lenny Henry to give students positive role models. Finally, she used the PA system to pipe music from Bob Marley to opera through the corridors to create the right mood.

The result? After months of hard work, St George's was removed from Ofsted's failing list and pronounced "a good school".

What is the magic ingredient that turns a failing school around? According to Lady Stubbs, it is about combining "airy-fairy stuff" with rigorous management at every level. If a school is stuck with the "failing" label, there is little point in just trying to get it removed, she says. "You should sit down and decide what makes a good education for the children. Every child should be intrinsically valued."

A devout Catholic, Lady Stubbs believes that this is particularly important in a church school such as St George's. "If you are a church-school educator, you have to be mindful that every child springs directly from the hand of God." Now 17 months into her second retirement, Lady Stubbs hopes that her book will give hope to parents and those working in education that every school, with the right leadership, can be good. She would like to see it reach a wider audience, and give politicians and business leaders a lesson in how to motivate people and transform an ailing organisation into a flourishing one.

Lady Stubbs is good at public relations. Behind the scenes at St George's, all was not rosy. Many teachers resented her regime. For her part, Lady Stubbs found many staff weary and cynical. She says, however, that she could sense "genuine professional concern" for the children, despite the "bunker mentality". Early on, she was horrified to find that a teacher had described the children as "scum" to an Ofsted inspector. Another said that it was dangerous to stand in the stairwells "because the kids spit on you". Lady Stubbs comments: "To me, that word 'kids' says it all. It's a disrespectful word, and I never allow it to be used in my schools. I usually refer to the children as 'young people'."

Eight teachers resigned, and the May Ball went ahead only because Lady Stubbs drafted in her two teacher daughters to help after staff boycotted the event. Further cracks emerged. As her book's publicity material euphemistically puts it, Lady Stubbs "struggled to make her vision clear" to the governors and to the Catholic diocese of Westminster, which, with Westminster Council, was jointly responsible for running the school. Her first governors meeting was "a moment of revelation", she says. "It seemed to me that the governors and I were not singing from the same hymn-sheet." Things got worse. Her relationship with the diocese deteriorated, and by December 2000, Ofsted described the disputes between the head and the governors as "an unhelpful diversion to the school's development".

Writing the book was a cathartic experience, according to Lady Stubbs. "I did have a bad time, initially," she says. "But there is a cycle of change, and it is quite painful to go through that process, but having something good come out is the key."

She is astonished that diocesan boards are not subject to inspections, considering their important role in running church schools. "I am a great believer in accountability," she says. "You have to ask why bodies are not accountable. Why is somebody not looking at diocesan boards, both Catholic and Anglican?"

There was one major disappointment still to come for Lady Stubbs. As her 17-month contract drew to a close, and the school searched for a permanent head, she hoped that Sean Devlin, her deputy, would get the job. The school authorities, however, opted for an outsider, Philip Jakszta, the acting head of a Catholic school in Tower Hamlets, east London. Lady Stubbs does not disguise her disappointment. "Personally, I was astonished," she says. "The idea of throwing away all the knowledge and experience of St George's that Sean had built up during the past year, the personal qualities that made the staff and the children trust him, and the stability that he would bring to the school, to me simply didn't make sense." She had intended to continue her involvement with St George's after her retirement, perhaps as a governor, but decided against it. She has had no contact with the school since 31 August 2001. "The school moved on, and I moved on," she says.

St George's School has gone from strength to strength. It received a glowing report from Ofsted last month, which praised Mr Jakszta's leadership. Meanwhile, Lady Stubbs is relishing her second retirement with her husband, three daughters and four grandchildren, particularly now that the dispute between Sir William and the Department for Education and Skills is settled. After his sacking, her husband was paid 95,000 and received an apology from Charles Clarke. "It was a very challenging time, but it all worked out in the end," is all that Lady Stubbs will say about it. She has maintained contact with the educational world by speaking at conferences, and does not rule out a more demanding return to the fray. "I never set out to have a career. I just fell into it," she says. "Maybe that's why I am a bit of a maverick. I quite like not knowing what will happen next."

By Sarah Cassidy

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