'I walk the corridors, I do the stuff on the street'

25th July 2003 at 01:00
Challenging the system is what Paul Patrick does best. In the third of our summer series on maverick heads, Elaine Williams meets him

Paul Patrick, aged 48, has been head of Cardinal Wiseman RC high school in the London borough of Ealing for six years. It's a technology and art college for around 1,800 students aged 11-18, with 80 per cent from ethnic minorities. Before he arrived, the school was marked by drugs and violence - a boy had been stabbed and died outside the school gates in a teacher's arms the previous year - the GCSE pass rate was 34 per cent and there were empty places. Last year, the GCSE pass rate reached 76 per cent. Ofsted called the school outstanding in 2000 and had no key issues. It is now over-subscribed.

Personal style?

Fearless, honest, ruthless when necessary. Prepared to bend or bin government initiatives if they don't suit his school.

How does he do it?

"Walking the talk". He alone is on duty the whole of lunchtime, he stands outside the school gate at the end of every day and says goodbye to all the pupils. His door is open. He supports staff who take risks, and does not decry failure, only laziness. He has increased the number of ethnic minority staff from two to more than 30 per cent of the 152 teachers and support staff, many in senior positions. When he appoints, he wants to know what staff can do for failing black boys. If they are not knowledgeable about the Macpherson report, he's not interested.

Why be a headteacher?

Believes in public service and wants children, no matter their social background or ethnicity, to have the schooling he would desire for his own children.

"Getting out of bed and engaging with the world is a political act. The Gospel values of justice, truth, equality, peace, love and forgiveness are at the heart of the school's mission statement.That's what I believe in.

I was born in Belfast, my mother from a Catholic republican family, my father from a loyalist clan, my grandfather master of an Orange lodge. They had to move to England, so I know what it feels like to be an immigrant.

I passed my 11-plus, which was unfortunate because I went to grammar school and hated every minute: the brutality, lack of care, love or kindness. It was at the time when Ugandan Asians were coming over and I was outraged by the racist abuse they had to endure from other students and indifference from staff. I would threaten people who threatened them.

My wife is a black Londoner and my kids look black and are treated as black - my son has been stopped 20 times in his car. My brother-in-law, a barrister, has also been stopped, so I have an insight into how black people are treated. I can identify with many parents who want their black children to achieve. I don't think the Macpherson report (published in February 1999, focusing on institutionalised racism in the wake of the murder of Stephen Lawrence) is being implemented in most schools, but here we analyse pupil progress by ethnicity and gender: white working class boys, Irish, Travellers, the lot. Everybody wants the best for their child.

That is our benchmark as a staff.

I am still appalled and ashamed by some of the admissions procedures in Catholic schools nationally - the covert selection of more academic kids and the turning away of those with special needs. If one of the criteria is how often parents read in Mass, what chance does a single parent working in a supermarket in Southall have? In terms of liberation theology and options for the poor, I believe we are doing our bit here. When I arrived, some teachers had no expectations of the kids because of their backgrounds, and I couldn't tolerate that. I wouldn't have them in my classrooms, not even for a day.

I walk the corridors, I do the stuff on the street. I am the figurehead, and pupils have regular contact with me. We have a full-time family educational therapist, we mentor, we listen, we coax. I once asked a boy, "What can I make you do to turn up to school?" He said, "Give me one of your designer suits." I told him he could wear it if he got five A-Cs. He promised he would achieve this if I gave him the suit up front, which I did. He got six A-Cs, which was great for him and an expensive deal for me.

I want people who will do anything to support children and raise achievement. If we have to abolish the timetable all week for a group of kids to concentrate on science, we will do it.

I threw out directed time. Teachers don't do 190 days, and we break early for the summer. Success has nothing to do with time spent in school, it's to do with high expectations. I propose to deliver the national curriculum in four days and have the fifth day for enrichment - music, Duke of Edinburgh, sports coaching - or for targeting groups of students. Staff would have to come in for no more than four or five Fridays a year. If someone wanted to set off for Paris on a Thursday night, they could go. It would be good for recruitment.

I don't do "presenteeism". If a teacher can do everything necessary by 3.30pm, so be it. I am an early morning person, but on a Friday at 3.30pm I'm off to play football, and nothing stands in the way of that. Albert Camus once said he had learned everything he knew about morals and obligations on the football field, and I agree with that."


Kelly McAree, 17, head girl

"He's always around the school and is a man of integrity who always addresses prejudice. He is also just and keeps to his word. If he says he is going to do something, he does it."

Henderson Clark, 69, head of ethnic minority achievement

"Paul believes that everybody has to take risks if they want to do well, and even if you fail he will back you. The children have a voice, and access to him is the easiest thing in the world. I was with him at the end of one day when a youngster was going mad outside the school gate. I told him not to go, but he said he could not run away from it.

"He takes the idea of a Christian community seriously. If a girl gets pregnant, he has her back after she's had the baby. He would not cast her out. But if you are dealing drugs, you're out. He would know about you even before you put your hand in your pocket, because the children would tell him. They trust him totally, and they have good reason to do so."

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