Governor leads his flock into the sunshine

1st June 2006 at 01:00

Vicar uses his role on governing body to give pupils on deprived south London estate a brighter future. Anat Arkin reports

On a sunny morning the Patmore estate in Battersea doesn't look too bad.

The trees are leafy and with few people about, the place exudes a sleepy calm. But appearances can be deceptive.

"This was designated the second most deprived parish in the whole of south London in 2001 and things haven't changed very much since then," says Geoff Vevers, the local vicar, who is also chair of governors of St George's Church of England primary school, in the heart of the estate. "We have huge levels of unemployment, and the reason why you can walk around the estate during the day and find that it's fairly quiet is because it doesn't come alive until it's dark."

Children growing up in this environment often join St George's with very low levels of attainment. Yet most - including the 25 per cent with learning difficulties or disabilities - are making satisfactory progress, according to Ofsted, which recently declared St George's a rapidly improving school. The inspectors described the leadership of headteacher Jan Hilary and her deputy as outstanding. Unusually, they also heaped praise on the school's governors, saying they were "effective due to the exceptional leadership of the chair of the governing body".

Geoff Vevers took over at St George's 10 years ago when it had just been placed in special measures. He found a school that lacked any sense of vision and staff who were not coping. The then head and several staff resigned, and the deputy head was appointed to lead the school.

Reverend Vevers changed the way the governing body worked, introducing a system of timed agendas for meetings and closer monitoring of what was happening in the school. He also brought in new governors with experience of doing the job in other schools, and set up an "executive committee"

which meets every other week to look at different aspects of school life .

Mrs Hilary insists that far from feeling intrusive, these arrangements have freed her up to do her own job. "There is effective monitoring and accountability, support and challenge are there in equal measure, and the school feels very secure because of that," she says.

By the time Mrs Hilary joined St George's in 2003, the school had already made progress under her predecessor and come out of special measures. Her arrival marked the beginning of a new era, according to the Reverend Vevers, who sees his role, now that the school's crisis is over, as that of a "partner in education", rather than the more usual "critical friend". An example of what this partnership means in practice is the work that's been done to help governors understand the challenges faced by a school in which pupils speak around 22 different languages at home and where almost half are entitled to free school meals.

"Before you can do any real work with governors, you've absolutely got to have a shared understanding of the context in which the school rests," says Mrs Hilary. "Governors will never be able to have a sensible and realistic conversation about standards until they understand where your standards sit against standards within other schools."

To help governors reach this understanding, children were asked to describe their community. Parents and governors also contributed to what the school calls its context map, which builds a picture of the school's surroundings through such expressions as "loads of police", "very dangerous", "dog mess", "graffiti" and "druggies". The children could think of only four positive things to say about their environment: "some days quiet", "mix of cultures", "some parks" and "schools are friendly".

The context map has helped governors consider the effects of this grim, urban environment on the children and what the school can do to make sure that they enjoy themselves, achieve and aspire. These three goals have led to the transformation of the school's environment, which, with its well-tended gardens and bright, welcoming decor, is now a haven of calm and order.

As Reverend Vevers says: "In many ways, everything else in life fails these children, so we mustn't fail. We are their one hope."

Name: St George's CofE primary school, Wandsworth

School type: 3-11 voluntary aided primary

Pupils on roll: 235

Results: Percentage of pupils at KS2 level 4+ in 2005: English, 72%, maths, 62%, science, 79%. Contextual value added score: 100.0

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