'I've never doubted myself. I will not be head of a failing school'

30th March 2007 at 01:00
Once pupils scaled walls to flee. Now Jo Shuter's 'darlings' behave and listen to what she has to say. David Marley met her

UNRULY PUPILS at Pimlico school were so desperate to escape they used to scale the walls of the prison-style yard. Teenagers who misbehaved spent entire days in isolation rooms in the central London school. Many of the rest wasted time milling through corridors and smoking in toilets when they should have been in lessons.

But those were the days before Jo Shuter. The interim headteacher has been parachuted in to turn around school performance and drag the iconic comprehensive out of special measures.

Wandering the now quiet corridors, Ms Shuter remembers how it was at the beginning of term. "It was like Piccadilly Circus round here," she says.

"Kids were coming and going as they pleased. Teachers had abdicated responsibility. I have taught in the inner-city for years but I was horrified."

Ms Shuter is not a woman to mince her words. Her forthright style, where nothing slips under the radar, has not always won her friends. During her first year at Quintin Kynaston school, in St John's Wood, north-west London, 100 members of staff quit - 70 went in her first term in charge.

But the number of pupils getting five top-grade GCSEs rose from 33 per cent in 2001, the year before Ms Shuter arrived, to 55 per cent last year. She says she is employed to get results, not spare people's feelings.

"I'm never frightened to say what I think, " she says. "I've never doubted myself. I will not be the head of a failing school."

Her manner may sound harsh, but there is no shortage of warmth for the pupils. Already she knows many by name; others are called honeys or darlings as she marshals break times.

One of Ms Shuter's first moves was to bring in a no hats, caps and hoodies rule. Other staff told her the pupils would never listen, but so far it is working. Not bad for a headteacher with a tattoo of a flower on her ankle.

Ofsted inspectors judged Pimlico was failing following an inspection last November. It said 11- to 14-year-olds were not making sufficient progress and criticised school leadership. Then headteacher Philip Barnard took early retirement before Christmas.

Since starting in January, Ms Shuter has brought in a new behaviour policy to improve the relationship between staff and pupils. "The old way was a punitive system that punished children without them having a right to reply," she says. "Some pupils were ending up in an isolation room all day, with sandwiches and water being brought to them. Teachers wanted to take action and be consistent but it was misunderstood and the kids absolutely hated it."

Now staff who discipline pupils have to meet them later in the day to explain their point of view and listen to what pupils have to say. Another independent member of staff acts as mediator.

It is more time-consuming but it is getting results, Ms Shuter says. "Even if you can't support the way pupils behave, you have to listen to them. It makes them feel valued and that is the fundamentally most important thing."

Toilets are now locked during lesson times, leaving fewer places to hide. If pupils want to use them they need to get a note from their teacher and a key from reception. Separate work on boosting attendance has already seen the rate improve from 87 to 92 per cent.

With pupils now back in the classrooms - and a coating of anti-climb paint on the school fences - attention is turning to improving teaching and learning.

"There is some really great teaching here. Some of the NQTs deserve medals and we have some wonderful advanced-skills teachers," says Ms Shuter. "But the good work was happening in a vacuum and was not spread around."

Getting the rest of the staff on side has not been easy, she admits. They had invested time and effort in the old system, but knew that things needed to change. Padraic Finn, the secretary of Westminster NUT, said: "The staff feel the school justified special measures. Jo has run a similar type of school and understands how they work. People may have quibbles about aspects of her approach, but nothing that cannot be resolved."

The biggest single difference, however, will come with a new building next year. The concrete and glass school is a renowned piece of "brutalist"

architecture from 1970, but it is too hot in summer and too cold in winter.

Ms Shuter describes it as a nightmare. Its supporters have failed to win it listed status and it will be pulled down in stages from next January.

Sir Simon Milton, the leader of Westminster council, has said he wants the replacement to become an academy. Ms Shuter says staff are concerned about the plans.

"There is a very strong ethos of this being a community school," she says.

"The politics don't interest me. I just want the ethos to be one of school improvement for the benefit of the pupils."

As for Ms Shuter's future, she will return to Quintin Kynaston in September, confident that Pimlico will be on track to come out of special measures by the end of the year. There is no question of her staying at Pimlico because she is already beginning to miss "QK".

"I may well come back for a couple of afternoons a week to see how things are going," she says.

"I like the idea of doing more of this kind of thing. Leadership is my strength and if I can make a difference to other schools then I am keen to do so."

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