Game over

17th October 2003 at 01:00
Closing a school can be a mournful process. But it doesn't have to be that way. When the LEA called time on an east London school made unviable by falling pupil numbers, the staff decided to go out with a smile - and record GCSE scores. Wendy Wallace reports

Tucked in behind the East India Dock Road in east London is Blessed John Roche, a Catholic boys' secondary school. Large, commemorative stones in the entrance mark the school's two openings, in 1950, by Cardinal Griffin, from whom the school took its original name, and again by Cardinal Heenan in 1974, when it amalgamated with two other schools, and was renamed. No stone is likely to mark the closure of the school in summer 2005, although the current cardinal, Cormac Murphy O'Connor, will be present at a special mass with a party afterwards. "That will be a celebration and a commemoration of the school," says headteacher Ian McGibbon. "Then we'll put out the lights, lock the doors and go home."

School closure is once again becoming a fact of educational life. Pupil numbers fell between the mid-Seventies and the mid-Eighties, before picking up again in the following years. Now, figures from the Department for Education and Skills indicate rolls are going to fall sharply again, by about 50,000 a year over the next decade.

With many parts of the UK already reporting surplus places, primary and secondary schools are likely to close or merge as local education authorities rationalise their resources.

The end of a school usually prompts distress in the community it has served and anxiety over employment prospects among teachers. But once closure becomes inevitable - as it has at Blessed John Roche - it can be a surprisingly positive experience for staff and children.

Blessed John Roche is airy, polished and peaceful. Students seem bigger than in other schools, perhaps because they have more space. Teachers speak softly to them. The intimate atmosphere belies the school's tumultuous recent history. Blessed John Roche, which is in Poplar, London borough of Tower Hamlets, failed an inspection in February 1999 and went into special measures. The then head Joe Rogerson resigned the following year as a result.

The school recruited another headteacher, Philip Jakszta, at Easter 2000 but, by November, the governors and the local authority had agreed to close the school. The main reason was the changing demographics of the borough, where the majority of pupils are Muslim. Then Mr Jakszta resigned, having been appointed to succeed Lady Stubbs as head of St George's in Paddington, and Blessed John Roche had reached its nadir. At that point, Ian McGibbon took on what might seem the unenviable role of leading the school to its end.

Mr McGibbon had been deputy head of Gunnersbury school, a successful Catholic school in Hounslow, west London, where he had spent 12 years. Why did he cross town to join a failing school heading for closure? It started with "an ad in The TES, a conversation", he says. "I began to realise there was an importance in looking after a group of children who, through no fault of their own, were going to lose their school. It developed into a sense of missionary zeal. And the money was attractive." Tower Hamlets has offered protected pension and redundancy packages for staff who have remained at the school, and kept funding at a level disproportionate to the shrinking pupil numbers.

Mr McGibbon is respectful of his predecessors - of the "loved and respected" Joe Rogerson, and the dynamic and upbeat Mr Jakszta. But his role was not to reinvent the school. "I was appointed to close it, in as successful and dignified a way as possible." When he came, in July 2001, staff had experienced special measures, news of closure, and three heads in less than 18 months. He found, he says, "a healthy degree, but not an injurious degree, of cynicism" - and firm foundations for improvement laid by Mr Jakszta. "He had put in place a very good teaching and learning policy. Staff were clearly keen on continuing that."

Mr McGibbon's thoughts on arriving at the school were that it should move rapidly towards closure, in two years rather than the planned four. But at a meeting last November, parents were adamant they wanted to keep their Year 9 sons on at the school for GCSEs. Tower Hamlets, having promised to listen to the wishes of the community, agreed. From that point, the mission became clear: to secure the best education and all-round life experience possible for the remaining students in the remaining time. They moved into one part of the split-site premises, repaired the dripping gutters, painted the hallways - and turned their attention to the boys in their care. "We set out to make them feel good about themselves," says Mr McGibbon. "We tell them all day every day how well they are doing."

The pupil population of Blessed John Roche is now down to 110, with only Years 10 and 11 left. There are 14.5 teachers. Relationships change in a small school; the tensions brought about by overcrowding evaporate and the anonymity granted by a large institution disappears. Fights, once commonplace, are now rare. Staff absence, formerly chronic, is greatly reduced. Average class sizes are below 20 and attendance has improved. As one student remarks: "If you're not there in the afternoon, everyone notices." Staff have pulled together on behaviour management and there has not been a permanent exclusion for more than a year.

Inspectors judged the school successful last summer; staff and students held a service in the local church to celebrate their exit from special measures. The number of pupils gaining five A*-C grade GCSEs rose to a startling 45.5 per cent this year, from 17 per cent in 1999. Sport, always a strength, has continued apace and the school reached the quarter-finals of the national basketball championship in Sheffield last year. Limited staff capacity means music and drama are not on offer. But new courses - the vocational GCSE in ICT and a GNVQ in ICT - have been introduced.

Students are learning robotics at the borough's city learning centre.

Blessed John Roche has a benefactor in the form of City livery company the Mercers, and uses the money it donates to enrich students' lives. At the end of last term, with the Year 10s on work experience and Year 11s having finished their exams, only Year 9 was in school. Staff took the 55-strong group off timetable for two weeks and substituted an intensive programme of outings and activities. The staff-student ratios allow close tracking of the boys' progress. "There is much more of an achievement culture now, and the boys love that," says deputy head Pat Simmons. "There are smaller classes, fewer people and more education," says 14-year-old Joseph Ajibade.

"You can talk to the teachers as friends, some of them, more than as a teacher." Joseph persuaded his parents to let him stay on at the school despite the family's move to Essex, from where he now commutes.

Staff have been revitalised. Head of English Brian Hall has taught at Blessed John Roche for 12 years. "Closure seems negative, but in the past two years we've been able to teach smaller classes, which has had a huge impact on our effectiveness," he says. "No one's coasting. We're committed to giving these kids the best chance we can and we're all batting for them.

I think they know that." Joe Wallace, who has spent his entire teaching career at the school in its various incarnations, concurs. "Everyone gets on, everyone mixes," he says. "The cleaners are with us, the dinner ladies, the office staff. We don't have tuppence ha'penny snobbery, as I call it."

Pat Simmons believes there are lessons for all schools at Blessed John Roche. "We've got a team of experienced teachers, the resources to have reasonably small classes and more time than teachers in other schools, so we're not suffering those stress levels. We have an incredibly committed inclusion department, so the boys are getting lots of support. The way things are here is the way things should be in every school, especially in the inner cities. We still have difficult kids from difficult backgrounds but we're not having nearly the number of problems."

Mr McGibbon has grown too. Initially "appalled" by the behaviour at Blessed John Roche, he speaks now with immense pride of "my boys". The move from west to east, he says, is the best thing he ever did.

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