The good, the bad and the expendable;Another Voice;Opinion

26th June 1998 at 01:00
IN THE reception office of a Roman Catholic school close to the bustling, noisy centre of Kentish Town in north London, hangs a picture of the Pope, along with an accompanying certificate.

This proclaims: "His Holiness John Paul II paternally imparts a special Apostolic Blessing to the headmaster, staff and pupils of St Richard of Chichester on the occasion of its Silver Jubilee, 1958-1983, as a pledge of continued Divine Protection."

Alas, His Holiness had clearly not reckoned with the power of Chris Woodhead and his inspectors, nor with the London borough of Camden. On July 17, St Richard's closes its doors after 40 years.

In March 1994, the school was put on special measures. Its GCSE results had not measured up to the national average and, yes, the standards of teaching had left much to be desired.

But few schools can make silk purses out of sows' ears. This is not a criticism of the many children at St Richard's. But 35 per cent of them have English as a second language and at least 9 per cent are refugees with no English at all.

I, too, was once a refugee with no English. But then I had parents who gave me time and love and discipline, as well as teachers who cared. There are some St Richard's children, whose parents are so engrossed in their own problems they cannot find time to spare for the plight of their youngsters.

After the first OFSTED inspection - and they continued once a term - rolls fell swiftly, from more than 600 to 450. Today, a pathetically small residue has sat the school's final set of GCSEs. Some 45 pupils (70 per cent) have been offered conditional or unconditional places at FE colleges. As for the staff, only four, including headteacher Paul Segalini have found jobs, and two are retiring. That leaves 14 still to find permanent posts.

I recall attending an education committee meeting about 18 months ago. Two boys spoke on behalf of the pupils, appealing to the committee to allow their school to survive. Then Camden's NUT rep spoke on behalf of the teaching staff.

After about 10 minutes, the chairman looked at his watch.

"Is there much more of this? We want to get on, you know," he said. There was a deafening silence from his committee. No one protested at this interjection. But the chairman complimented the two boys on their eloquence.

"We must make sure pupils are found good places at other schools," he said.

So, whether or not anyone had listened, it seemed a waste of time. The closure of a school had been a foregone conclusion. And this from a Labour-controlled local council. Old or New Labour? Does it matter?

Every inspection since the first has highlighted a succession of improvements, with the most recent HMI monitoring visit heaping praise upon the school for having pulled its academic socks up. Teaching in all classes was found to be never less than satisfactory and in some, excellent. This, too, had fallen on deaf ears.

So did the council find those good places for pupils? Most have certainly been placed elsewhere - but mainly as a result of St Richard's own efforts, with the head and senior teachers spending hours telephoning colleagues at schools throughout London. The school had "imported" a large number of children from neighbouring Islington, where there were plenty of vacancies.

But Islington parents had sent their sons and daughters to St Richard's because they were unhappy with their own borough's school provision.

Islington and Hackney parents approached schools as far north as Potters Bar in Hertfordshire. Maria Fidelis, a girls' convent school in Euston, offered places to any girls from St Richard's.

Questions remain and grate at my mind. Could the inspections be trusted? Recently two inspections at Dogthorpe School, Peterborough, resulted in diametrically-opposed reports - one excellent, the other poor.

And if St Richard's had not been one of the first to be inspected, if it had been "OFSTEDed" in the most recent cycle, would the verdict have been the same? Perhaps not. OFSTED's model of inspection has changed.

It now allows for value-added achievement and compares schools with locally similar ones. As many relocated pupils and staff would confirm, St Richard's compares well - even very well - with similar schools with high special needs levels and low percentages of able pupils. When Cardinal Basil Hume attended a commemorative mass for the school's 40th anniversary, he pointed a stern finger at his young congregants. "Let no one tell you that you are failures," he declaimed.

It was a splendid sermon but, as with that message from His Holiness, it proved impotent. A pity that neither Chris Woodhead nor Camden Council were present. But would they have listened?

John Izbicki is a freelance journalist and former education editor of the Daily Telegraph

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