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'I have always striven to recreate my stable, loving home'

From a large and loving family herself, Sister Josepha brings stability and laughter to pupils scarred by the drug culture. In the last of our series on maverick heads, Elaine Williams meets the 'clown for God'

Sister Josepha Matthews is headteacher of St Vincent's RC primary school in Walker, Newcastle upon Tyne, where she has worked since 1980. The close-knit school of around 230 children is the heart of a community scarred by a destructive drug culture. The school, which has gained a government Achievement Award, sees itself as a safe haven for children with difficult lives.

Why be a headteacher

Carrying on the tradition of the Sisters of Mercy, the order to which she belongs. "Holding the torch" for local families who are fiercely committed to the school, and creating a strong stabilising force.

Personal style

Very hands-on, very loving, makes time for everybody, develops her staff and makes them feel valued. Writes songs for every school occasion. Very funny, with a highly developed ability to see the comic side to every situation. Says she joined her order so she could wear the black and white of Newcastle FC every day of her life. Recently told Ofsted when they called to announce their next inspection that the name stood for "Oh Father, Send Them to Eternal Damnation". "Fortunately, they were able to laugh."

In action

Football fanatic who is coach and transport manager for her school team, regular winners of many regional championships. The school is littered with trophies, she plays football with pupils in the yard, and is seen regularly on the roof rescuing footballs. Alan Shearer is a visitor. Takes the whole school for singing practice on a Wednesday afternoon so staff can have non-contact time. For a while, a guest on Channel 4's Big Breakfast, singing with her guitar every morning from school. At the end of the school year pupils, parents and teachers shed tears for leavers, and Sister Josepha is swamped with hugs and kisses. During the summer holidays she runs a St Vincent de Paul camp for 72 children a week from the Hexham and Newcastle diocese on Holy Island.

Before I was a nun, I was a secretary for a solicitor's firm, and we could never get on top of the paperwork. It's taken me until I'm 50 to realise that I'm never going to get the better of it in school. You feel so fragmented by all these initiatives that you are never given time to bed in properly, but for me it's about treasuring the things that are happening between people, it's about lifting up the rocks on the shore of life and uncovering the wonders underneath. Sometimes I lie down on the chairs in our community room and look up through the skylights and watch the clouds, these billowy, quiet, peaceful things hanging around between heaven and earth just waiting to be blown this way or that. Sometimes I think it would be better if we all just hung around a bit more and waited, floating peacefully, instead of dashing around trying to achieve the unachievable.

My parents loved each other very much and had 10 wonderful children. I was my mother's right-hand girl, always helping out, but I was a tomboy as well, playing football, climbing trees, climbing mountains when I was older. As I grew older, it dawned on me that not everyone has this loving family. I always felt I was given so much, and I have always striven to re-create this experience of a stable, loving home.

In many ways, I feel I am the worst person you could pick to do this job, I can't carry the briefcase and do the professional thing, I am not at all worldly-wise. I take comfort from the fact that God never chose the people with the greatest self-confidence to do his work, and from the fact that I can have a laugh with the children. What they remember is me running round the school all the time holding on to my hat, or standing in assembly with my eyes shut saying the Hail Mary with a little reception boy sitting with his head up my skirt, or me stuck on the school roof clutching the football I had rescued because the painters, who were Sunderland supporters and probably trying to sabotage the joint, had gone away with the ladder. I'm a clown for God.

We have a strong community here, but the influence of the drug culture is huge. You can see the impact on the children, you can see it in people's faces. A lot of parents have gone to prison for it, and we have a lot of sad stories. One of our past pupils died from an overdose, others are addicted. We try to make this an oasis, somewhere stable where people are not dependent on the latest fix. We have difficult children here and we try to show them that their actions have consequences. They know that we will always make the time to get to the bottom of things and really sort things out, even if it's painful.

When there's been an incident, I often get children to act out what they have done. I often respond with "You said what?", and go through the whole business. At least it helps with their speaking and listening and in creating the structure of a story so we're not losing time with literacy.

It's about allowing pupils, and me as well, to face up to things we might not have had to face before; it's about helping people to feel it's OK to tell the truth.

I say I'm the crackpot headteacher, literally full of cracks and weaknesses which allows the light of the children to shine through. They are wonderful. We do a lot of sport because it's about team building, but we only have a back yard and have to walk half a mile up the road to use another school's field. It hasn't stopped us getting all the way through to the national championships.

Once, when I was walking with a group of 10-year-olds, I saw some condoms lying on the road in front of us and I thought "Oh no, how am I going to steer them past this one?" But one of them just took my hands and said, "Haway sister, don't worry, it's just a pair of old gloves." They were trying to protect me.

Singing is something we do really well and with great enthusiasm. It removes these children from the harshness of their reality, it gives them time out, it unites them and lifts their hearts and spirits. My football team are noted for always bursting into song.

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