Now the ordeal is over

31st October 2003 at 00:00
The job of rebuilding the school made famous by the shopaholic former nun continues. Martin Whittaker reports

Name St John Rigby Catholic College, Bromley, south London

School type Mixed 11-18 voluntary-aided Roman Catholic comprehensive

Proportion of children entitled to free school meals

20 per cent

Improved results Since 2001 up from 32 per cent to 35 per cent of pupils achieving five C grade or better GCSEs

When John Stanley stepped in as acting head of St John Rigby college in February 2000, he knew he was taking on a big challenge. But he did not realise just how big.

The previous principal resigned after auditors probed the school's finances. The bursar and the chair of governors had also quit, and two vice-principals and the assistant bursar were suspended pending further inquiries.

Mr Stanley says: "I knew there were financial irregularities. Obviously when you're asked to come in as an acting head in a situation like that, there's something wrong. But nobody knew the extent of what we were taking on."

Today everybody knows. The head he replaced was Colleen McCabe, the former nun jailed in August for five years. The financial irregularities turned out to be the pound;500,000 she stole from the school.

John Stanley, his leadership team and governing body have battled with her legacy - a massive deficit budget, few teaching resources, neglected, unheated classrooms, teachers abandoning ship and falling rolls.

Some progress has been made. An Office for Standards in Education report published in February 2001 praised the head's very good leadership and the introduction of effective management systems.

But three-and-a-half years after Colleen McCabe's departure, the school is still struggling with an accumulated deficit of just under pound;500,000.

Mr Stanley says progress has been made with little financial assistance.

He is currently discussing a recovery plan with the London Challenge (launched last year to improve secondary education in the capital), the Department for Education and Skills and the Roman Catholic diocese of Southwark.

This summer's court case and the resulting headlines knocked the school back as it was just beginning to stagger to its knees.

"We have still got to get the confidence of the local community. The trouble is people read the stories and they think it is happening now.

"But throughout these past three years the school has never been anything other than successful. It could be more successful and I expect it will be much more successful."

St John Rigby college is something of a surprise. It sits next door to a grand Tudor mansion, Wickham Court, and looks out on one side across London and on another across ancient Kent woodlands.

With its red-brick buildings it looks more like a campus than a school - in the Fifties it was a Catholic teacher-training college.

When Mr Stanley arrived he found a school which had been badly neglected.

When asked if he can quantify the financial mess the school was in, he pauses, before saying that the pound;500,000 figure doesn't even get close to it.

Buildings were in a state. In his first year he had to spend pound;200,000 on health and safety. Boilers were replaced and teams of cleaners sent into classrooms to do a job that during Colleen McCabe's reign had been left to the teachers.

Neglect was even more apparent elsewhere. "It almost appeared that the initiatives of the Eighties and Nineties had passed the school by," he says.

Nothing had been done to prepare for the Curriculum 2000 changes. Although reports of an empty library were exaggerated, the school was still severely short of resources - there wasn't a single computer.

"Financial procedures were put in place when I came in February 2000 - that was one of the first jobs that had to be done.

"In the very early days I had to reintroduce heads of year and pastoral teams, and introduce again subject leaders, because they had created a structure that wasn't simple and didn't help support the school."

He also had to build bridges with staff: "My arrival in the school was welcomed by many people, but it wasn't all positive."

Staffing has continued to be a problem. Last year the school lost around 30 teachers, lured to inner-London schools by better pay or driven away by the school's lack of resources.

GCSE results have seen a slight improvement since 2001, up from 32 per cent of pupils gaining five or more A*-Cs to 35 per cent this summer, but John Stanley admits they are not good enough.

The school has a positive atmosphere, students cheerfully greet the head as he walks through the grounds. Mr Stanley and his team have managed to bring in some improvements.

The school has put in a pound;2.8 million bid to build a new maths suite.

And the school has new information communication technology suites, and is converting old classrooms into video-conferencing suites.

The money came from capital funds which the LEA wanted to use to offset some of this year's deficit budget. "Fortunately for us I had already committed to certain contracts," says Mr Stanley.

He says the school's main aim now is to draw a line under the case. But the misappropriated money, for which the school has never been compensated, is still contentious.

"People said surely you will get it back. Natural justice says we should.

But there's no mechanism for giving schools grants of that sort of nature."

It could take the school as long as Colleen McCabe's prison sentence to recover.

"It's going to take us at least another five years to get things back on track," says John Stanley.

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