Deborah Ross talks to Geoff Hampton, head teacher
I can't stop for long this week because I have to tidy the house and find where I put the Hoover when I last used it in 1973 and generally get things ship-shape for when Sir Geoff Hampton comes down to London. Sir Geoff got a knighthood in the recent honours list, the first serving head of a state school ever to be knighted. Sir Geoff took a dramatically failing secondary in the poorest part of Wolverhampton and turned it into something quite wonderful. I am pretty seriously in love with him. He may be the best man, the finest man, I've ever met. I want him to come live with me and sort out our rubbish schools here in Islington where my kid goes.

We don't even have to have sex, I tell him, unless you really want to. "But I am married," he cries. Honestly. As if I care.

Let me tell you about some of the things Sir Geoff has achieved, and why I'm so crazy for him. In February 1994, Northicote School in Wolverhampton was the first school in this country to be "named and shamed" under the new national inspection programme. According to the Ofsted inspectors, it was appalling in almost every way. The building itself was a disgrace: smashed windows; litter strewn everywhere; walls rudely graffitied. Truancy was running at an average of 10 per cent, although in the week of the inspection 44 per cent of one particular year were absent.

Only 7 per cent of pupils left with GCSEs at grades A-C. Teachers struggled to impose control. There were only three students in the sixth form.

And now? The building, while still one of those 1960s monstrosities from the outside, is immensely cheery inside - pupils' artwork everywhere; posh, engraved achievement boards; no graffiti; no smashed windows. GCSE results have improved spectacularly: 25 per cent got A-C grades last year and even better results are expected this year. Once 18th out of 18 in the local league, Northicote is now second top. (The top is a selective C of E school.) There are now 76 students in the sixth form. Plus, of course, the head is now a Sir, or even a "SirSir", as the pupils teasingly call him.

A surprise, Geoff? "Very much so, yes. When I first got the letter, I thought it was a joke. I couldn't believe it." Your wife? "Shocked, too. But thrilled, of course." He will be going to Buckingham Palace to receive his knighthood on March 3. He is very excited, yes, as is Lady Hampton. "Put it this way, she did some serious clothes shopping on Saturday afternoon."

So what sort of a bloke is he? A tough bloke? A ruthless bloke? The sort who boots out teachers that aren't cutting it and boils children if they forget their homework and shouts all the time? You'd think he would be. But he isn't. He says things like, "being trusted to educate children is just such a wonderful privilege" and "I don't believe in waving big sticks" and "Wayne! Wayne! I've heard about your English result. Well done!" Then, to me: "Wayne was borderline last year, but he's just had the most brilliant autumn term."

The key to him is the genuine passion he has for these children, who come from the most deprived area of Wolverhampton. It's not even white working class, more white unemployed class, now that the local Goodyear tyre factory has shifted a lot of its production to Malaysia. There are a lot of broken homes. Plus quite a few violent homes, yes. "So the fact they get in here in the mornings, on time, in their uniforms, often with a big smile is something of an achievement." He may even love these children. Or, if not that, then he certainly loves what they might be capable of.

He is 45. He has been involved in teaching all his adult life, but is still as excited about what he does as he ever was. He takes enormous pride in the children's achievements. The pupils respond to this. The teachers respond to this. The parents respond to this. When he first took over, he phoned, or contacted by letter, every single one of the 649 pupils' parents, asking them to come to the first parents evening, telling them it would be really nice if they could make it. If he didn't get a reply, he would do a home visit. No, he didn't come on strong. He just said: "This is what I'm trying to do at the school. Please come and help me." Nearly all came, and they still come. He can't think of a parent he doesn't know.

We meet at the school at 8am. Yes, he always starts this early. Even earlier sometimes. He refuses to do paperwork during the school hours, between 9am and 3.30pm. He does it before and after. He won't have a PC in his office on the basis that if something needs doing on a PC, a school secretary can do it. The other motto on the wall says: "A desk is a dangerous place to view the world."

He is a big man, 6ft 1ins, broad-shouldered, hands like hams. But he isn't frighteningly big because he is very rounded - round face, round blue eyes, round nose almost. Nothing about him is angular or sharp or unfriendly. His eyebrows are bushy and ginger. He chuckles a lot and heartily. The teachers say they have never heard him lose his temper. He has a splendid Wolverhampton accent, quite like a Birmingham accent but much nicer because it's quicker, so it doesn't sound so much as if someone is talking while their batteries are running down. He would be quite an attraction in Islington, I think.

Sir Geoff took over the school in September 1993, just a few months before Ofsted came in. He wasn't surprised by their report, no. The school was in a terrible state. "The first thing you noticed was the apathy. All these children drifting about, not wanting to be here." How had this come about? "Well, the previous head had been here for 27 years. When you are part and parcel of something for a long time, you tend not to notice what's going on. It's like you're the last person who realises your home needs redecorating. Sometimes, you do need a fresh eye."

The first thing you tackled, Geoff? "The most obvious thing. The building." He got the local authority - "who have always been immensely supportive" - to stump up pounds 350,000 over three years for repairs. Graffiti was painted out. Toilets were renovated. Windows were re-glazed. Geoff personally pulled out the old, beaten lockers. The effect was dramatic, he says. "Within 12 months the smashing of windows, which had been a nightly problem, totally ceased. Something made the kids think before picking up that brick and throwing it. It's about pride. Having a school that looks good is about telling children they're worth something."

The second thing, Geoff? "Bags." Bags? "Yes, school bags. The kids didn't use them. It wasn't done to be seen with one. It might have meant you were taking school seriously. So they came in unprepared - no pencil, no pen, no anything. There was no homework culture. Give them a book to take home and you wouldn't get it back." So what did you do, Geoff? "I went to the local FE college and got them to sponsor bags for every child in Year Seven, the entry year. The bag had the school's name on it, the FE college's name, and our motto: "Excellence for Everyone." I personally put a pen, a pencil and a rubber in each one.

Soon, everyone throughout the school wanted one. Now, all children carry bags and homework and homework planners. "Are you saying a school bag is an important thing?" "Absolutely."

We have to move off now. It's 8.50am, time for his daily briefing with his staff. The pupils are pouring in. We head down the corridor. "Morning Matthew. I'm about to present you with a certificate for 100 per cent attendance last term. Congratulations!" "How was the journey, Hayley?" Hayley's parents have moved to the other side of town but Hayley wanted to carry on coming here. "An hour? That's not too bad, then." "Kimberley, I hear you got 100 per cent in your maths homework. Mr Rickhuss [head of maths] wants to know if you're after his job!" "Deborah, are you chewing? Spit it out NOW." Sorry, Geoff.

Into the staffroom. "Hello, you noisy lot," Geoff bellows happily. There are 46 teachers here. Yes, there has been some turnover of staff, but he hasn't sacked anybody. A bad teacher is rare, he says. More likely is a demoralised teacher. He spent a lot of time in the classrooms, yes, when he first came. He has done a lot of work with the teachers, helping them to improve, helping them to regain their enthusiasm.

The staff adore him. "His door is always open," says one. "I used to be ashamed to say where I worked, but now I'm so proud," says another. "He has built up this tremendous momentum that just carries you along," adds the head of girls PE, who has been at the school for 26 years. I could go on. Worryingly, there seems to be a lot of competition for his affections.

The staff update him on various goings on, then it's off through the corridors again. A pale, undernourished-looking boy tugs on Geoff's sleeve. "Yes, Ryan?" Ryan gives him what looks like a bit of torn of kitchen roll with some writing on it. "My homework, sir," he explains.

Geoff tousles the boy's hair. "Thank you, Ryan, thank you." Ryan is deliriously happy. Big grin, and a skip in his skinny step when he walks off. They've been having problems with Ryan. Last week, Ryan removed the blade from a pencil sharpener and brandished it in the classroom. Ryan was suspended for three days for this. Ryan isn't usually a big one for homework. Ryan, today, is obviously saying he is sorry.

Geoff was born and brought up in Wolverhampton. His father, Les, sold cars while his mother, Irene, was manageress at a local building supplies company. Although neither had gone on to further education themselves, they encouraged Geoff tremendously. English was always his best subject. Got an A at A-level. He still adores Hardy and Shakespeare. He always knew he'd be a teacher. He became a craft teacher. "I had always enjoyed making things. It gave me great satisfaction. And to pass on those skills gave me even more satisfaction." He has had hundreds of letters of congratulations since his knighthood, and a lot from ex-pupils who say "I still have that fruit tray I made with you 25 years ago."

He still makes things, particularly jewellery, for his wife, Christine, whom he met when he was in the sixth form and by whom he has two sons -- Paul, 18 and Ian, nine. What sort of jewellery do you make her? "I made her a very nice brooch from resin recently. It catches the light beautifully."

Geoff, you're perfect. Can you cook? "I am told my lasagna is good." DIY? "Love it. I'm currently rewiring the shed." Fix cars? "Oh yes. I enjoy that." So, perfect, like I said." "Oh, I don't think my wife would say so." You beat her, then? "No. But I get so carried away with my DIY I forget to take her shopping and she finds that very irritating." I could live with that, I am thinking.

He started his teaching career in a school in nearby Dudley. He stayed for 22 years, going from craft teacher to deputy head. He then took on the deputy headship of another Dudley school before taking on Northicote. He has introduced some ground-breaking schemes, yes. There's a literacy and numeracy project that teaches struggling kids alongside their parents. Often, when you have a struggling kid, you have a struggling parent, too.

How does he get the parent to come in? "I go to the house. I say your son/daughter is having problems with their writing. Would you come in to help support them?" And? "99 times out of 100 they come." And when they come in to help their kid, you help them? "Exactly. And it works."

Ding-a-ling-aling. Lunchtime. Yes, Geoff eats with the kids most days in the school canteen. Today, we have pizza and chips and Panda cola with Gary and Stephen, 13. We talk about Geoff's impending audience with the Queen. We wonder what he should say to her. What would you say to her, Stephen? "I'd say, gis all yer money." Fair enough. Geoff says that if things are done alphabetically, he'll probably be going in with Elton John. "Ohh, get us his autograph, sir!" But, then again, if Elton uses his real name, he's stuffed.

"What's his real name, Sir?" Touchingly, Geoff thinks it may be Dwight Yorke.

It's the afternoon. Geoff has to see a parent. He tells me I'm free to have a wander about. I go into Mr Rickhuss's class. Mr Rickhuss is teaching sines and co-sines and all the other stuff that makes me queasy. I go into Domestic Science, where the kids are cooking pizzas to a cassette of the three tenors. The lesson has an Italian theme. "I always play music," says Mrs Wren. "Some of them have never heard classical before, and it's so nice when they ask for more." I note in both classes how good the children are. 3.30pm, ding-a-ling. Home time. Geoff offers me a lift to the station in his Mondeo. He drives me through the catchment area - abandoned, boarded- up shopping parades, council houses with planks for windows - then into the centre of Wolverhampton where, at every traffic light, someone seems to wind down their window to shout out "congratulations".

Geoff is quite a celebrity now. I wonder, will he shortly be appearing in Hello! "Sir Geoff shows us his recently rewired shed while Lady Hampton shows us the hat she's bought to meet the Queen." He thinks not. "See you in Islington," I cry when we part. "I think I love you." He blushes magnificently, I think I won him over in the end. Must find that Hoover.

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