At the West End's heart

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
Outside the school gates are sex shops and drug dealers, but inside Soho Parish primary is a haven of tranquillity in London's most colourful neighbourhood. David Marley reports

Photographs Edmond Terakopian

AS TEACHERS make their way home from Soho Parish primary in the evenings, women working in the neighbouring buildings are just starting their shifts.

Dressed in short skirts and teetering on high heels under illuminated signs, they lure men downstairs into their clubs for whatever is on offer.

"I always say we are the only school in the country with a girly club under the playground," jokes Rachel Earnshaw, Soho's head, with a shrug of her shoulders.

"Actually, I don't think there's anything that serious going on, but there is certainly no shortage of gullible men willing to spend a lot of money to find out."

Sandwiched between two clubs and opposite the Windmill International table dancing club, Soho Parish primary does not fit the stereotype of a Church of England school.

Just a minute's walk from Piccadilly Circus in the heart of London's West End, it is in one of the seedier backwaters of Soho. Its most famous alumnus is Sid Vicious of Sex Pistols fame, a leader of the punk movement who died at 21 from a drugs overdose.

While the location brings its difficulties, it also brings rewards. It attracts an enormously wide variety of pupils from well-connected and wealthy artistic families as well as children from nearby China-town and immigrants with no English.

When Ms Earnshaw talks about a recent sports day held at a local park, she is talking about Regent's Park, not a piece of municipal wasteland. The school also enjoys partnerships with the local arts scene, such as English National Opera, English National Ballet and Tate Britain.

"A lot of people are intrigued by the idea that there is a school here at all," Ms Earnshaw says. "But most of the children have grown up with the environment and are not fazed by it at all.

"Of course, we would prefer to have different neighbours, but our relationship with them is good on the whole. They have been co-operative and agreed to tone down their activities at the time the children were leaving school."

To prove that point, The TES photographer discovered how protective the local workers can be. As he snapped away, a woman, who looked as if she were touting for business, crossed the street to tell him to stop.

"I'm taking pictures of the school, not you," he told her.

"That's the problem," she replied. "You can't take pictures of children. There are a lot of strange men around here."

The more serious side of Soho is the other elements it can attract. Children have witnessed fights and drug dealing in nearby streets, which upsets them.

"One parent told me he was so proud of the school for what it does, but also ashamed of it because of its surroundings," says Ms Earnshaw. "That's a real shame because the area completely belies what's on the inside. It is a haven of tranquillity compared to what's happening outside the gates."

The terraced Victorian building is a warren of corridors and staircases, all brightly painted with different colours to help pupils find their way around.

Soho has 145 pupils, but average class sizes of just 20 because the classrooms are too small to accommodate more. It makes it very popular with teachers.

"Anyone who says class size doesn't matter is mad. Teachers can really teach here because there is no crowd control and policing," says Ms Earnshaw.

The building is rich with history. Part of it was bombed during the Second World War and an iron footbridge to a room on the top floor was destroyed. As the footbridge was the only access, the room lay untouched for 50 years until the mid 1990s. When it was reopened it was still full of Victorian school furniture, which is now in the Museum of London.

In the past two years, Soho has gained computer rooms and a new hall in rooms that used to be rehearsal space for musicians playing in West End theatres.

The expansion of Soho was made possible in part by a very active parent teacher association that has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds in the past five years.

While some schools might hold a summer fete with a tombola to bring in some extra money, Soho Parish aimed considerably higher.

When an art auction was suggested, some people thought it might raise a few hundred pounds. But one of the parents is the chef Fergus Henderson, who owns the St John restaurant, in London's Smithfield. It is a popular eating place for artists, including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, who agreed to contribute pieces to the auction.

The event was staged free of charge by a London gallery owner at the Groucho club, famed for its media-luvvie membership. Telephone bids came from collectors worldwide. The school raised more than pound;150,000 in one evening.

When an argument broke out between bidders about who had secured the skull donated by Damien Hirst, he told them they could both have one and produced another.

"It was truly astonishing," says Steven Johnson, the chair of the PTA. "Everyone was completely staggered by the generosity of the artists involved, who contributed the work and came along on the evening to show their support."

The school is also heavily involved in improving its local community, including a campaign to clean-up St Anne's gardens, on Wardour Street. More than Pounds 350,000 has been raised, including contributions from Westminster council.

A former haunt of drug users and dealers, the gardens have become a regular retreat for pupils who have a small playground but no green space. Now they are the venue for a summer barbecue, cooked by Fergus Henderson. Next month a toilet, decorated with pupils' artwork will open in the grounds.

For a school in one of the busiest parts of London, there is an undeniably strong sense of community.

"It feels like a village school," says Louise Carter, the deputy head. "I couldn't believe how friendly it was when I started here."

Ms Earnshaw has only ever worked in the inner city. She trained at All Souls primary, the other side of Oxford Circus, and stayed there for 13 years before joining Soho. "I've always worked in this area. I've never known anything else," she says.

"There are stresses and strains caused by lack of space, but we are very lucky in this school. The parents and the children are wonderfully diverse and come together so well. I live in rural Oxfordshire where I cannot see another building from my house. I like the quiet life at home, but I couldn't imagine working anywhere else."

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