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The Lady and the comp

It looked an impossible task: to turn round a London school where a previous head had been murdered at the gates and which was on the brink of permanent closure. But Marie Stubbs did it - in four terms - and explains how in a new book. Wendy Wallace talks to her while, overleaf, Peter Wilby reviews her account of the saving of St George's

Marie Stubbs was for 13 years the head of Douay Martyrs, a Catholic comprehensive school in Ickenham in the suburbs of west London. But it's the four terms she spent as head of St George's RC school in the heart of the capital that is the subject of her book Ahead of the Class.

St George's, in the London borough of Westminster, was imprinted on the public imagination when headteacher Philip Lawrence was murdered at the school gates in 1995. By spring 2000, the school - in special measures for two years - had been temporarily shut down and was on the brink of permanent closure.

Marie Stubbs's book opens six months into her retirement, on holiday in Scotland with her grandchildren, when she gets a telephone call. It's Tony Mackersie, director of education at the Catholic Diocese of Westminster, asking her to step into the headship at St George's within days.

The book is an entertaining, feelgood account of what followed. Lady Stubbs (her title comes from her marriage to Sir William Stubbs, former head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) accepted the offer - at the age of 60 - on condition she could bring a team from Douay with her; deputy heads Sean Devlin and Tracey O'Leary agreed to "have a go", and the three arrived at the school a week later, straight after spring half-term, with the pupils still off the premises.

Three years on, sitting in the Barbican Centre, where she and Sir William have a flat, Lady Stubbs describes what happened at St George's as a fairy story. "A lot of school improvement is much simpler than people make out," she says. "You need to stick to simple overview principles and hone the craft of teaching so you can respond to every child."

But as in all the best fairy stories, the heroine had to pass through a dark and dangerous forest - in the form of demoralised staff, an unhelpful governing body, and an unsupportive Diocese - to fulfil her quest. It is the description of her struggle to overcome these obstacles that gives the book its narrative power.

On arrival at St George's, Lady Stubbs found children out of control, and a depressed building, vividly described in terms of its locked doors, chewing-gum-sticky carpets and bare, magnolia-coloured walls. Many staff were hostile to her personally - she arrived with a reputation for union-bashing - and to the idea of a "super team" coming in to transform the school. In the playground, children swore at her when she asked them to pick up litter, and her introductory address to teachers was greeted with silence. When, two months after coming to the school, she organised a formal celebration for Year 11 at the nearby Metropole Hilton hotel, several teachers refused at the last minute to supervise. (Two of the Stubbses' three daughters, Nadine and Fiona - both trained teachers - stepped into the breach so Year 11 could go to the ball.) But driven by belief in God and young people - "the role of the school is to make up to children what the family can't provide, but at St George's, for many and complex reasons, it wasn't happening" - she battled on. Lady Stubbs and her deputies worked from 7am until 10pm for weeks on end, brightening up the fabric of the school, sorting out the financial chaos and supporting teachers in an attempt to give children self-worth and decent teaching.

She swallowed her pride and enlisted help from a priest-teacher, Father George Dangerfield, with whom she had fallen out at Douay (he resigned just before an Ofsted inspection and she swore never to speak to him again) to resurrect the spiritual life of the school. The team introduced a newsletter to keep families informed, energetically confiscated mobile phones and baseball caps, pursued truants - among children and staff, intervened in fights and pushed teacher training as far as they could. They brought in a counsellor and introduced a rolling programme of trips and enrichment activities, including putting on a school show, a production of the Whoopi Goldberg film, Sister Act.

Lady Stubbs credits her "marketing mind" with running the kind of adverts that drew candidates even in a time of severe teacher shortage. She says people overstate the difficulties. "Whingeing and breast-beating isn't my way. What I'm good at is choosing good people and allowing them to be their own best selves." She recommends heads "listening with the inner ear, to where someone's at professionally, creating a sense of confidence, of 'I can do that'", until the presence or absence of the head is barely noticeable.

Those who weren't with her were against her. "The choice was to spend time and energy I didn't really have trying to explain things to people who could not perceive what was necessary and urgent to be done. There was a year, so I made a conscious decision that I could only invest so much time in discussion, then I had to get on with it," she says.

Lady Stubbs would be the first to admit to bloody-mindedness. Her response when the going got particularly tough (a negative story about "staff exodus and bitter recriminations" in the Sunday Times the day before Ofsted arrived for a full monitoring inspection, for instance) was to conjure in her head a phrase from her Glasgow childhood - "Wha daur meddle wi' meI " She went in the next day to rally staff for the inspection "radiating confidence and enthusiasm", ignoring the television network vans parked outside.

According to her own account in Ahead of the Class, few did dare meddle with Marie Stubbs. Some teachers left, more were won round. Children responded to the care and interest shown in them, and parents were delighted by the newly purposeful approach. Lady Stubbs has a lot of the show-woman in her, beginning one parents' meeting chewing gum with her mouth open while Sean Devlin stood by in a back-to-front baseball cap, to make their point about school manners and mores. She delights in being headmistress rather than headteacher, in wearing high heels and suits, and repairing to the beauty shop on the corner before evening meetings. "I feel strongly that a headmistress should always look fresh, so my occasional visits to Persis (the Iranian-run salon) are important." Teachers who look "scruffy" - and, God forbid, dare to wear "flip-flops" to school - are made aware that it's not acceptable, as are the children.

Lady Stubbs's cheerful approach - "In my mind's eye I can see how it (St George's) would be transformed by hanging plants and bright, upbeat coloursI" she is saying by page 10 - extends to teaching skills, pupil behaviour and the spiritual life of the school. The team's efforts begin during Lent ("a period of reflection before the rebirth of Easter"); the Christian year and festivals provide a strong framework for the activities of the task force.

Marie Stubbs is a great champion of family life, casting school in terms of a family and relying on her own for practical and emotional help. The three Stubbs daughters helped with posters, contacts - famous visitors to the school included Kevin Keegan, Cherie Booth QC and Lenny Henry - and moral support. Bill Stubbs appears in the book to "press a gin and tonic" into her hand in the evenings, and her own mother issues dire warnings over the telephone from Glasgow, that Marie is "too old for this sort of thing". She did, in the end, succumb to pneumonia shortly after the school had its final Ofsted visit in March 2001, when it was officially taken out of special measures. Sir William, then still at the QCA, did not involve himself in her day-to-day concerns at St George's, she says.

"Professionally, we've always gone our separate ways. It would have been a bit feeble if I was asking him what to do in the evenings."

The book - which she dictated into a tape recorder - is written in an accessible, pacey style, eschewing education jargon and detail for popular appeal.

Lady Stubbs doesn't address the way government policy impinges on St George's and schools like it, although the manuscript was finished long before Sir William's fatal run-in with Estelle Morris last summer. Written at the suggestion of others - "It's not something I was driven to do," she says. "It happened by accident" - the pages are peopled with vividly if simply drawn goodies and baddies. The heroes - her deputies Sean Devlin and Tracey O'Leary, teacher governor Ariadne Lish, schoolkeeper Mick Chamberlain - are those who sooner or later come round to Lady Stubbs's way of thinking. The villains are those - certain members of the governing body and diocese - who do not. Her work there, she writes in conclusion, was "fuelled by anger as I gradually discovered the depths of what seemed the betrayal of the children by those who should have supported me".

Her opponents might be said to have had the last word, in denying the permanent headship to her ally and protege Sean Devlin, who got the first headship he went for within weeks of being turned down for the Westminster post. (Six other schools had asked him for interviews, but he accepted the first, at Worcester. Tracey O'Leary left, too, in the summer of 2001 for a deputy headship in Birmingham.) Lady Stubbs has no relationship with St George's now, but she is not bitter. "When you leave the stage, you should leave the stage." She wrote the book, she says, for catharsis and to share what she has learned. "I wanted to celebrate aspects of the profession, good teachers, and to affirm children in challenging circumstances who learn a different way to respond to education."

Now retired for the second time, Marie Stubbs is in good form. Chic and lively, she retains her fondness for the beauty parlour she describes in the book - evident in her immaculately pencilled eyebrows and manicured nails. The silver charm bracelet that fascinated St George's girls sports a champagne bottle for the exit from special measures, a pair of boxing gloves for the fights she had there, and a miniature bunch of keys for the actual and metaphorical doors she unlocked - including the gate to Philip Lawrence's memorial garden.

With the book behind her, Marie Stubbs is learning to ski, learning to use IT, learning to be someone other than a headteacher. "There is life out there. What you do is find the you that is you, and not the professional carapace." She hopes, rather humbly, that people find something to take from her book. "It's whatever little bit of wisdom I've got, that I wanted to make available."

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