Thirty years before the mast

6th November 1998 at 00:00
Everything about Tony Maxwell, head of St Michael's School in Billingham,Cleveland - body language, the way he talks about the school and its pupils - tells you that here is one long-serving teacher whose passion for the job is entirely undimmed.

"For me, this isn't a job," he says. "It's a relationship. The school is my mistress. I love being in my office and on the corridors, where it's always warm and welcoming."

Though head of St Michael's for only three years, Mr Maxwell has been at the school ever since he left De La Salle College in Middleton as a young art teacher in 1966. For 30 years he watched and learned from successive heads as they battled with the social effects of industrial decline to make the school into the successful institution which it is today.

He had no intention of staying so long. "My plan was to stay for two years and then move on." Promotion, however, tended to get in the way and after three years he was head of the art department. His ambitions, though,went beyond that.

"I couldn't see a future in being head of art. I had lots of other interests in the school - the folk club, the football team." In recognition of this breadth of involvement, in 1974 he was made a head of house - a powerful figure in the days when pastoral work was heavily emphasised in comprehensives.

"It was a terrific job. It suited me and gave me the opportunity make relationships with pupils outside the classroom."

Then in 1985 the head and the deputy head both retired, and at the same time the future of the school was called into doubt by a local programme of re-organisation. Tony Maxwell became deputy head and an acting head, Vince Shanley, was brought in from outside. The assumption was that the pair would manage the closure.

What in fact happened was that the two of them, urged on by the parents, embarked on a fight to keep St Michael's open. From this campaign he learned many lessons, not least about the power of local community feeling and the importance to a school of supportive parents. "It came down to Billingham being a town in its own right, with the right to its own Catholic school. The parents were the motivating force in this. Without them, we would have closed. It was their sense of ownership and belief that carried us along."

From Vince Shanley, too, he learned some valuable strategies for school improvement. "He had the vision to identify and retain the strengths of the school and cut out the weaknesses. We became a much more professional and businesslike organisation."

As part of this, the two of them decided that the school's policy of getting on with its job and keeping out of the public eye was not necessarily always right.

"Education was coming under fire nationally. We felt that we had to combat this - we knew we had a good school. We resolved to stop being quiet and start telling people what we did."

Ever since then, the school has consistently looked for public opportunities for its students - sports success, local and national news opportunities.

"We take part in many competitions - art, public speaking, drama, sport. "For two years running, for example, students of the school have won the prestigious Motorola Youth Parliament Competition for schools, their success bringing them visits to Parliament and meetings with Cherie Blair and senior parliamentarians, including the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd.

St Michael's now, under Tony Maxwell's leadership, is a confident place, with a special sort of feeling about it. Pupils give the impression of being open, amiable and confident, and classroom discipline, to the casual visitor, seems hardly to be an issue. "I want an atmosphere where people feel unthreatened and able to communicate with adults," says Mr Maxwell.

In pursuit of this he has encouraged the development of a pupil-run school council, and he promotes and supports staff-student events such as the annual dinner dance at a local hotel for Year 11. "The relationship with the pupils is one of the big features here, but we're never satisfied,and always striving for improvement."

Good relationships, of course, help good learning, and GCSE results at St Michael's are consistently above the local and national averages, with steady improvement over recent years. (This year the percentage of GCSE A to C grades is up to 49.4. Extend this to A* to G and the figure is almost 100 per cent.) The Office for Standards in Education commented on "an orderly and disciplined community". All this, of course, is in an area where it would be easy to justify a lower level of achievement.

In term time, school consumes Tony Maxwell's time. In the holidays, though, he escapes with his family. ("I'm a hell of a family man, with a great wife and two lovely kids.") He has a house in Brittany which he refurbished himself. "Since 1970, I've built all my own houses on plots of land I've bought. Someone I knew did it and I thought if he could, then so could I."

He also sails - "It used to be Hartlepool to Holland; now it's Plymouth to Brittany."

He acknowledges his debt to the people who have influenced him - "Billy McLean, head of St Bede's Secondary Modern where I went when I failed the 11-plus; Vince Shanley; Eddie Payne, head when I first came here who gave me opportunities and allowed me to flourish. You start to realisethat you can't allow yourself to fail because there are too many people who've done such a lotfor you. I want to give that back for as long as I can."

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