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Determined to go out on a high note

Dorothy Lepkowska reports on success that came too late for a failed school in north London

When St Richard of Chichester RC School closes its doors for the last time in August it will be a particularly poignant farewell for its head teacher, Paul Segalini.

He first arrived at the north London school in 1964 as a young pupil, less than a decade after it had opened. Thirty-five years on he will oversee the school's demise.

What is worse still, said Mr Segalini, is that the school will cease to exist without regaining its reputation and standing. St Richard failed an Office for Standards in Education inspection in 1993 and government guidelines make it impossible for a school that was closing to come out of special measures.

"I am a realist. The school served the community for many years but it is not the same school that I attended. So while it is poignant, I am trying not to attach that much sentimental value to it," he said.

Paul Segalini took over the headship of the troubled school a year ago with a brief to close it down. Camden education authority had decided that the combination of academic failure, the high costs of running a school with dwindling rolls and a surplus places problem across the borough meant that it was no longer viable.

"There was a lot of anger and upset from the teachers when the decision was announced, but also on the part of the pupils who were happy here and did not feel it was a bad school," said Mr Segalini.

"Undoubtedly there were problems that needed to be addressed. Standards were not good and there was an attendance problem. But we were getting over that and there was a new spirit of motivation and expectation at the school.

"I suppose for the local authority closing us solved several problems all at the same time."

In fact, much was done to try to save ailing St Richard. When the previous head John MacDonald took early retirement, Andrew Graham, then a deputy head at St George's RC School in Westminster, was identified as a replacement.

He had spoken with Mr Segalini, then the deputy at St Richard, in December 1995 about his ideas for turning it around. Two days after their meeting, the head of St George's, Philip Lawrence, was murdered forcing Mr Graham to stay and lead the stricken school.

Instead, Mary Wapplington, the head of the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Brent was seconded to St Richard.

"She made a difference straight away, particularly in giving the staff, including myself, their confidence back. She allowed me to use my head and get on with implementing new policies to combat truancy and poor behaviour. There is no doubt that we were well on the way to coming out of special measures," Mr Segalini said.

Today just 70 pupils - Year 11 students sitting their GCSEs this year - and a dozen teachers remain at St Richard. At breaktimes the long corridors are silent, pupils preferring to converge on small pockets of the empty buildings to play table tennis or study. The other 400 children were transferred to other schools last year.

Ironically, this summer's cohort of GCSE candidates are expected to return the best results for years.

"For my own part I feel rather cheated that I have not been allowed to take the school out of special measures. I will always be seen as a head who closed a failing school but my own view is that it is no longer that.

"All the staff are determined that, by the time the school closes, the remaining pupils will have had the best possible educational experience that is possible."

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