The boss is going on strong

15th September 2006 at 01:00
Former head with a superhero reputation, Lady Marie Stubbs just cannot seem to find the time to retire, Su Clark writes

After 15 years in the head's chair, Lady Marie Stubbs envisaged retiring to a hot, deep bath, eating chocolates, sipping gin and tonic, and reading glossy magazinesJ- everything that she had never had time for over the previous 40 years.

But within six weeks, the chairman of the Archdiocese of Westminster Education Board rang with a request. Would she take on one of the most notorious schools in London?

In 1995, St George's Roman Catholic Secondary in Maida Vale became notorious when its headmaster, Philip Lawrence, was murdered. After the tragedy, standards plummeted as the school spiralled into chaos and was placed on special measures by Ofsted.

In March 2000 it was facing permanent closure when Lady Stubbs was wrenched out of retirement to lead the task force that had been given only four terms to turn the school around. Within 17 months, the combined effort of staff, students and parents transformed it from a failing institution into a well-run, effective school that Ofsted praised as a national example of good practice. Lady Stubbs became a national figure.

At the time, she hardly envisaged that 10 years later a film would be made about her, or that 11 million people would want to watch it. But they did.

"It was a complex situation, the children were disaffected and the school was depressed. But people don't realise how easy it is to change, they just rumble on.

"I wanted to show you can transform a situation, so I wrote my book Ahead of the Class and it was then made into a film," says Lady Stubbs, who is making a keynote speech at the Scottish Learning Festival which she hopes will inspire teachers.

"Thousands of teachers have written to me saying they have found the book useful. It has been good to have feedback. I wanted to show that it is common sense that drives good leadership."

A fascinating read for any aspiring school leader, the book gives a day-to-day account of how the task force brought about dramatic change at St George's. Suggested reading for festival delegates, it shows how Lady Stubbs made it a priority to create, as quickly as possible, an environment in which the children felt valued.

Influential people, such as a Ralph Fiennes, Cherie Booth, Lenny Henry and Kevin Keegan, came and spoke to the children, and she introduced a grand ball for Year 11 (S4) school leavers.

"I am a bossy person. I always was. When I was a little girl I would make desks from bricks in my back garden and sit my dolls behind them," says Lady Stubbs, who has acquired a list of accolades, including Catholic Woman of the Year in 2002.

"My poor sister had to put up with a lot. But I always knew I was going to be a teacher."

Since making such a difference at St George's, Lady Stubbs has never yet quite managed to retire. She has just set up an internet fitness site for the over-50s and later this year she begins filming a Supernanny equivalent for education, which sees her go into schools giving leadership advice. She has earmarked the age of 93 - still some way off - to start running that relaxing bath.

SETT

Every Child Matters - How Does the Teacher Ensure this Happens? by Lady Marie Stubbs, Wednesday, 12.15pm

ADVICE TO NEW TEACHERS

* Be very well prepared. Read Lord of the Flies. Children are like natives, red in tooth and claw.

* Know your class or group so that you can match your teaching to the needs of the young people.

* Be confident. You have a lot to learn but remember you are the adult and they are not.

* Show the young people that you are willing to like them but don't be over-friendly. That old teaching adage about keeping the smile off your face for the first couple of weeks still works. Be firm but not harsh.

Then, once you are past the first fortnight, after you have shown them you mean business, let them see you do have a sense of humour.

* Never break anyone's spirit; sarcasm is anything but professional.

* Always listen to the children. Get a colleague to come into your class and time how much you speak and how often you let the pupils speak.

* Always keep in mind what a privilege it is being there. You are forming minds; you can contribute to personalities, dreams, hopes and aspirations for the future.

* Remember you are a professional. Don't get involved in inappropriate staffroom discussions about people. It isn't professional.

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