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Can-do head in Camden

Michael Duffy meets Sean O'Regan, Teaching Awards finalist for primary school leadership.

Most graduates from Oxford's prestigious course in modern greats (that's philosophy, politics and economics to you and me) go into politics or business. Several of Sean O'Regan's contemporaries are now MPs. But Sean jolted the university's careers department by telling them he wanted to be a nursery and infants teacher. "I remember their amazement," he says.

But they shouldn't have been surprised, as there have been teachers in his family for three generations. Besides, there's a streak of the quixotic about him. Perhaps it's his Irish background. How else would you explain, for instance, his man-and-boy devotion, in the very heart of Arsenal territory, to Manchester United?

Whatever the reason for his decision, he has never regretted it. Nor have the parents, teachers and pupils of Edith Neville primary school in Camden, north London - "hidden away behind King's Cross and St Pancras stations" - where he has been head since 1996.

Most of the parents are Bangladeshi, second or third-generation now, long settled in the area. But there are children, including refugees, from every continent. And what most of them have in common, says Sean, is "need".

He began teaching at the school in 1990, when he returned to England after a year of travelling abroad. He applied to and was accepted by six London schools, from which ("it was the children who decided me") he chose Edith Neville. After the death of a colleague in 1996 he was appointed acting deputy and, within weeks, the departure of his headteacher meant the acting deputy was now acting head. "It was unexpected and undeserved. Just luck."

But it wasn't as unexpectedas what happened next. Within days (and with Ofsted imminent) the school building began to collapse. His first task was to load the entire contents of the school into 500 packing cases, "even before we had found temporary quarters".

These proved to be an abandoned block at South Camden high school - with no kitchens, no playground, no toilets, "just Portaloos". For a year, no one had a morning or idday break as the children were escorted 500 yards back and forth. "It was so demanding. And in all of that, we still had Ofsted."

It was Sean's leadership then and afterwards that led his teachers to nominate him for the south-eastern area award. Sean himself was reluctant to accept it. "That experience strengthened us, made us more aware of what we could achieve together.

"The teachers who went through it are the nucleus of a special team. Nothing wows me more than watching them teach. I like to think that if I'd stayed in the classroom, I'd be as good as them."

But good teachers can't always stay in the classroom. Sean has many other jobs to do. He is steering his school to Investors in People recognition and drawing on single regeneration budget funding to appoint an artist-in-residence, build up music and drama and set up language and sports clubs.

And he is determined to help his teachers cope with the ever-mounting pressure. "The job's too big, too hard. We work 10 hours a day at school, all hours at home. There are vast amounts of paper - and lots of people who need more help than even we can offer." He admits to wondering - with his first baby on the way - how he can possibly find the time to enjoy and watch him or her grow.

"But I suppose that's why I came into the job, to enjoy teaching young children and watch them grow," he says. And when he is pressured or depressed, he likes nothing better than to watch the three and four-year-olds in the nursery classes. "They're guaranteed to make me laugh," he grins. "Just like Arsenal supporters."

The national final ot the Teaching Awards will be broadcast by the BBC on November 5


* Keep a sense of proportion and, more importantly, your sense of humour

* In making difficult decisions consult colleagues, trust your instincts and always ask yourself: "What serves children's interests best?"

* Be accessible and approachable; then, when you really are too busy, children, parents and colleagues will understand l Remember that "teacher" must always be an important part of "headteacher"

* Be patient

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