The lessons of St John

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Three years ago it was a sickly inner-city primary, struggling to provide minimal learning for working-class children whose behaviour it seemed unable to control. Now it has earned the ultimate accolade from chief inspector Chris Woodhead - a star of approval from the Office for Standards in Education as well as a place in the 100 top-scoring schools in the league tables.

St John the Divine, in Lambeth, sounds like a triumphant vindication of the use of the public pillory to improve schools. The spectacular turnaround of the school followed widespread publicity for a damning OFSTED report. It was one of the first schools in Britain to have its failings laid bare in this way.

Mr Woodhead's conviction that shame is a spur to teachers and governors alike encouraged the new Education Secretary to embark on his "name and shame'' policy of publicising failing schools which have not improved sufficiently under special measures. But Blunkett beware: most of those involved in the reformation of St John question whether it is all due to the school's savaging by OFSTED.

The 220-pupil Church of England school, a mile or so from the Oval cricket ground, was in the first batch of primaries to be subjected to OFSTED's attentions in 1994.

The report portrayed a school where teachers lacked direction and pupils were running amok. Conscientious and dedicated teachers were working with little guidance or support, while a rowdy minority of pupils were allowed to wreck their lessons, it said. Constant noise distracted pupils and drowned out teachers' voices, and some of the behaviour was potentially dangerous. The inspectors recommended that the school should be subjected to special measures, and thus come under the close surveillance of a variety of inspectors and advisers who would guide its management through the implementation of a set of action plans.

Once published, OFSTED reports are available to the press and the public. But the public were not left to wait for the official publication of the report on St John.

By 1994 educational standards were shaping up as a key issue in the long election battle that was already under way. The new system of inspection was a demonstration that the Government was determined to root out the sloppy teaching and wimpish discipline which its backbenchers-and many parents-were convinced was undermining educational reform. On the eve of the Tory party conference of that year, the revelations of the St John inspection were a gift to hard-pressed politicians.

The school's children and parents learned what the experts thought of their school from a banner headline in the London Evening Standard, which was to be cited at the conference. Somebody had decided to leak the report.It meant that St John was widely named and shamed more than two years before it became official policy to do so.

The school building is a mid-Victor ian educational folly, hemmed in by a warren of shabby terraces that are home to the listless little shops and unconvincing backyard businesses that symbolise urban decline.

Sally Bowman, a parent at St John, grew up in the days when the terraces and the small council blocks housed a small community of well-paid Fleet Street print workers and busmen and the faces at the school assembly were white. Now a majority of the school's pupils have foreign mother tongues, a medley drawn from at least three continents. More than three-quarters are eligible for free meals. The report, says Mrs Bowman, came as a complete shock to the neighbourhood's parents.

She knew that discipline was different from the days when she and her fellow pupils would get a tap on the head if they were slow in answering a question. "I heard pupils being rude to teachers who didn't seem to be doing much about it," she says.

But she thought her two sons were progressing well enough because they had learned to read and write, and nobody had ever led her to expect more. Now, she says, whole new horizons have opened up for them. They bring back up to one-and-a-half-hours' homework every day. "I didn't realise they were missing out on things like maths and science. Now the head says that Charlie, who is 11, has a brain that just soaks up information and ideas, and that he has a great future."

Her sons' achievements are not unique: more than 70 per cent of Year 6 have attained level 4, the expected national target, or better, in English,and an even higher proportion have reached that level in maths and science.

If parents like Mrs Bowman are delighted with the new orderly and high-achieving St John, so are the teachers. Helen Amusan, a tall, quiet-mannered Nigerian, says, "The staff are all good teachers who always supported each other, but there was not the curriculum planning that we needed or the necessary discipline. Now we know where we are going and can work as a team knowing that we will get the help and backing we need."

Bradley Thompson, 11, does not lack confidence. But her earlier years in the school were a time of fear. "There were always fights going on between the big boys, and you were always worrying whether they would turn round and pick on you.'' Her friend, Dionne Elson, adds: "If your cousin got into a fight with another boy, the other one would be waiting after school to take it out on you. '' "And children would come into the class and stop us working,'' chimes in Carmen Wan.

The three children have no doubt that things have changed enormously for the better. They say they know that if they behave badly they will be punished, "so people don't cause trouble any more and we can get on with our work".

The governors are also pleased. "There is no doubt that the school has improved greatly,'' says Sister Joy, the Anglican nun who is deputy chair. The inspection concentrated the governors' minds on the problems and gave urgency to the need for change, she says. "But was it worth all the trauma?We were already about to take the step which put the school on to the road to improvement: appointing the right head."

You could say that Bradley, Dionne, Carmen and their fellow pupils have been the key figures in the turnaround of St John. It is the children themselves who drew up the rules of behaviour which are now the basis of discipline and the remarkably civilised relationships throughout the school.

The rules are kept by the overwhelming majority of the pupils because they own them, with each new class updating the code for itself. "You know the rules are fair and that you deserve the punishment you get if you break one," says one pupil.

Christopher Cosgrave, the new head, says behaviour was the school's "Becher's Brook" - the hurdle it had to clear before it could move on to improving learning. It could be argued it took the inspection-a nd the fear that their school would be closed down-to shock the children into improving their behaviour.

They themselves say they knew it was up to them to save the school. But most of the adults involved believe discipline would have improved anyway, if not as rapidly - like all the other changes at St John.

Deputy head Eileen Muresan took charge of the school, whose head had just retired, a matter of days before the inspectors arrived. Her long career in teaching includes a spell as a local authority adviser; she could easily have found a permanent headship, but does not want one.

Nobody doubts that Mrs Muresan would have got round to tackling behaviour and introducing whole-school planning and the rest of modern primary practice. She would probably have moved more hesitantly because she was, after all, only a caretaker head.

As it was, Mrs Muresan held the staff together through the trauma of the inspection and the ensuing publicity, drew up the obligatory action plans, worked out a new behaviour policy - in consultation with the children - and started the arduous task of improving classroom practice and management throughout the school. Staff worked on the plans with her late into the evenings and through weekends.

Chris Cosgrave arrived two terms later and has since led the school out of the shadows and towards the sunny heights of the primary league. An experienced head whose Croydon primary had just earned a favourable report from OFSTED, he had applied for the St John headship knowing of its problems.

Once discipline was secured, he and Mrs Muresan, who has stayed on as deputy, started putting in place whole-school policies and schemes of work to form a coherent curriculum framework. At the same time they used their own teaching to provide a model of classroom practice for the staff.

Mr Cosgrave concentrated first on maths because it was the school's existing strength and he wanted to build on success to boost staff morale. Other areas were prioritised in turn, with a rapid improvement in achievements - and expectation -across the board.

It could be argued that Mr Cosgrave and his pupils have been beneficiaries of the devastating effect of the OFSTED report, which must have flattened any potential resistance to his reforms. But Sally Bowman will have none of it. She is confident he would have achieved his aims anyway. "He's wonderful. There was no need for all that fuss and publicity," she says.

Bradley Thompson and her friends have their own way of saying much the same thing: "He's strict but nice."

The head himself rejects the idea that he is some kind of miracle worker, but also doubts that OFSTED's intervention was the only way to secure the changes.

The pressures certainly added urgency and accelerated the changes which would have begun anyway under the acting head, he says. They also provided him with a useful lever. "But what needs to be asked is whether it is worth the psychological damage and demoralisa tion inflicted on the staff."

Another consideration, he suggests, is the damage caused to the flimsy self-esteem of a deprived community which identifies closely with its neighbourhood school. And, not least, to the pupils, labelled in the newspapers as behaving so badly that their school might have to be closed.

"How do you feel when a seven-year-old asks the inspectors if her school is really the worst one in England?'' he asks.

But he says it "won't be possible to balance the value of OFSTED inspections against the harm they do for a few more years, because only then will we know whether the damage they inflict on teachers has a lasting effect''.

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