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Keeping up with the Peter Joneses

‘Eat this bread, drink this cup…’ More than 220 children between the ages of four and 11 intone the hymn. It’s Friday morning, and St Joseph’s RC Primary School is holding its weekly Good News Assembly. Except today is different, as the children are practising their welcome for Bishop Alan Hopes when he comes to bless their new school building later this month.

They’ve waited for 15 years for this spectacular glass and steel construction, beautifully ensconced behind a Pugin exterior – and it was worth it: St Joseph’s now looks smart enough to keep up with the neighbours, the well-heeled of Kensington and Chelsea whose local shops include Stella McCartney, Peter Jones and Cartier.

Appearances, though, are deceptive. This school in Chelsea caters for the less affluent residents of the Royal Borough. Most of the children are Portuguese, but many are originally from the Philippines, Spain, France, Bulgaria, Russia and Poland. The majority of parents work as the caretakers, cleaners and drivers of the rich owners of the local buildings. Home ownership is two per cent, English as a second language, 80 per cent.

None of this keeps St Joseph’s from achieving an outstanding academic record. Its 2009 Ofsted report praises the school’s “excellent education” and “outstanding leadership”.

The report had me applying to this school for my six-year-old Isabella; my daily contact with the staff has impressed me so that I asked Anne Spragg, the headteacher, if I could shadow her for a day.

What, I wanted to know, is the secret of a good Catholic school?

Well done! You did your best
Well done! We’re so impressed
Well done! Congratulations
You deserve the praises!

The children sing the refrain. A handful have been singled out for special awards – behaviour, attendance, and, most important of all, “improvement”. As one little girls steps up to take her award, Anne Spragg shakes her hand: “Improved,” she smiles, “that’s my favourite word.”

There’s a lot of it about, at St Joseph’s. Take a little boy I’ll call “Leo”: he is a statemented child (ie he has special educational needs) who was severely disturbed when he first arrived at the school; learning did not come easily and socialising was a challenge. But Leo has been receiving extra support here, including one-on-one teaching and very close monitoring. And today, as he hands deputy head James Stacey a huge, hand-made card, he’s beaming like the most confident of eight-year-olds. “It’s for your baby’s first birthday,” he says proudly. He has got every single school classmate to sign the Happy Birthday card.

Leo is by no means the school’s only success story; the word’s got around that St Joseph’s can work wonders with children whom other schools can’t cope with. At least four have been sent here by different local education authorities. The school has five statemented children already; three more are pending review by the local education authority.

Some school governors are reluctant to keep welcoming children with special educational needs, these difficult cases; they don’t want to compromise the school’s excellent academic record. But Anne Spragg is adamant that a Catholic school must open its arms to the most needy. The transformation from uncooperative loner to well-integrated teammate is one of the huge rewards she relishes as head.

James Stacey, her deputy, agrees: “We value academic achievement. But we also value the progress – especially when you have as many special needs children as we do. We talk of Personal Best, not success.”

It’s almost 10am and head and deputy are meeting in Anne Spragg’s office. James Stacey was a pupil at St Joseph’s, then came back as a teaching assistant, progressing to teacher, and now to Anne Spragg’s right hand.

I ask Mrs Spragg and Stacey how would they describe their school’s ethos – that elusive element, you remember, that David Blunkett, when Education Secretary under Tony Blair, had wanted to “bottle”.

“It’s a Catholic ethos,” James Stacey explains: “that is fundamentally about respect for all. We’re all in a relationship with each other and we have to treat others as we’d like to be treated.”

“You’re relentless in expecting the best: there’s no letting something slide,” Anne Spragg continues” “The children feel known, recognised as individuals. And this makes them feel they must contribute. They are engaged in this school, as well as in their own personal learning. It is a community not an organisation.”

She points to a pastel-coloured poster: “Respectful, responsible, resourceful,” she reads: “those are our core values, and we concentrate on them.”

It’s almost 11:30 and I follow Anne Spragg to a meeting with the arts coordinator. We cross a little boy on the staircase. Mrs Spragg intercepts him to turn the collar on his shirt: “Paulo” she admonishes him kindly, “you’re not looking your usual St Joseph’s self.”

When he’s gone, looking sheepish, she explains that she always checks the children’s uniform, checks for litter in the playground, graffiti anywhere: every detail must speak of care and attention.

The art coordinator needs Mrs Spragg to choose some art work to hang about the school. It’s fun to sort through the bold prints and ambitious drawings. Less fun was yesterday’s day-long session, spent completing the many forms of the Schools Improvement Plan. The school improvement adviser, once known as the schools inspector, is expected soon, and will want to ensure that St Joseph’s is keeping up with the continuous self-evaluation now required of all state schools. You can sense that the head wishes she could do away with the Department of Education bureaucrats – or at least, their claim on her time.

Mrs Spragg has no difficulty with Kensington and Chelsea, however. She will only go down the academy route, she tells me, “if there is funding attached. I remember years ago that grant-maintained schools opted out of local authorities for the money – and then they had to come back under local authority.” The money would come in handy, as her primary school has to repay 10 per cent of the new building – £3.8 million. She has already raised £150,000, but the other half will prove a challenge in the present economic climate.

“There’s obviously money within the Government Local Education Authority budget – at the end of the year we are all encouraged to pitch for grants, so it’s clear there’s a pot left over. But sometimes the money comes with so many strings attached, it’s not worth it. Or they’ll ask us to match-fund. If they gave us £15,000 that would be good: but the Government doesn’t appear to trust us.”

It’s lunchtime, and we file into the large, light-filled hall where we’d had the Assembly in the morning. The din is deafening, supervised by a teaching assistant who acts as dinner lady. (The head and deputy are usually around at lunch time.) Anne Spragg walks down the aisles, studying the rows of tables. She notices one child hasn’t finished his greens, another has spread her packed lunch all over the table.

“I look at what children bring in for lunch, because it’s often a very good clue to what happens at home. Once we had two brothers coming in day after day with only crusts of bread. I started giving them free school meals. We later learned that police had been called to a serious case of domestic violence in the home.” After lunch, we go Year 3. A teacher is absent, so everyone pitches in to cover for him: “Bringing in a supply teacher is very expensive,” Anne Spragg explains. The class stands to attention when the head and her “special guest” come in. They sit on the carpet while Mrs Spragg prepares to read to them. A few of the boys start whispering among themselves, and to engage them, the head asks: “What do you think this story will be about, just by looking at the cover?”

Instantly, 25 faces turn to her, 50 eyes full of attention. The children listen, spellbound, as she reads the tale of a girl and a grandmother who use their imagination to visit distant lands.

Someone looks puzzled at the word “compartment”, and Anne Spragg immediately takes a box from a book shelf, and divides it into sections to show what the word means.

Hanging beside the blackboard is a “reminder board”, found in all the classrooms. A misbehaving child will be given, first, a verbal warning; then they’ll find their name written on the board; then they’ll be made to sit at the time-out table; after that, they are may be called into the Headteacher’s office.

“I always stress to our teachers how important it is that they keep a record of the children’s conduct,” Mrs Spragg tells me as we climb the stairs to our next meeting, That way, if a parent comes to complain about their little one being an angel who has never broken a rule, we can point out the pattern of behaviour. It is also essential that the teacher communicates, with me, but also with the parents, the moment there is any problem.”

As if on cue, a young teacher (the average age of the 11 members of staff is 30 years old) appears, and hands over a sheet of notebook paper. “I thought you should see this,” she says, voice low, “It may be nothing but…” The cause of her concern is a description written by a Year 1 girl of a man and a woman pressing against one another. Mrs Spragg reads it, nods her head, smiles at the teacher: “I think that’s nothing to worry about. But well done for bringing it to my attention.”

After 15 years at St Joseph’s, and six before that as deputy of a two-form entry Catholic school in Croydon, Anne Spragg can spot the difference between the inappropriate and the innocuous. “I encourage the staff always to ask me when they’re unsure of something,” she says: “Ultimately, it is my responsibility.”

Almost all the staff have been trained here (“we are growing our own teachers”) thanks to a graduate trainee programme at South Bank University. Once they have a degree the would-be teachers do four days in schools and one day in university.

Our last meeting is with two music teachers who are committed to channelling troubled children’s energy into making music. “Lots of samba, lots of drums: that gets the boys going,” the young man tells us.

“It will work miracles with Year 4,” the young woman beside him enthuses.
“I certainly hope so,” Anne Spragg smiles.

Working miracles, I can’t help thinking as I leave to fetch my daughter, is what she does best.