Driven by the vision of a better school

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The Independent Online
Nothing could have been more different from Philip Lawrence's own background than the north-west London school where he was headmaster and outside which he was stabbed to death on Friday.

Mr Lawrence, 48, was the son of an Indian Army officer and educated at Ampleforth, in North Yorkshire, one of Britain's leading Roman Catholic public schools, and Queen's College, Cambridge.

He began his teaching career as an English master at St Benedict's, Ealing, west London, which, like Ampleforth, is run by Benedictine monks. But it was in the state sector of education that he found his natural niche, relishing the challenges and difficulties facing those from a less privileged background than his own.

"Although he came from quite a privileged background, he always wanted to teach in the state sector and help children with few advantages," said Dennis Costello, who taught with Mr Lawrence at St Benedict's.

Mr Lawrence went on to Gunnersbury School, Brentford, and then St Mark's, Hounslow, both in west London, before becoming headmaster at Dick Sheppard School, in Brixton, south London.

There he was attacked but his experience of violence at the school, since closed down because of its problems, did not deter him from the difficult world of inner-city teaching.

At St George's Roman Catholic School, Maida Vale, north-west London, where he met his death, he was faced by serious disciplinary and academic problems in a socially and ethnically mixed area.

He was driven by a vision that not only should the school improve but that it could do so. In his two years there he turned it round and won the respect of pupils and parents, who recognised him as tough but fair and caring.

Realising that many pupils had not yet grasped the educational basics, he retrained specialist-subject teachers so that a history teacher could also teach children to write during lessons in that subject. Examination results at St George's improved and parents began to compete to send their children to the school.

Mr Lawrence bought new padlocks to put on doors and gates and kept a check on visitors because he believed that pupils could learn better within a secure environment and that parents rightly expected that their children would be safe at school.

That belief in safety cost him his life when he characteristically and unhesitatingly went to the aid of William Njoh, aged 13, as he was attacked by a gang outside the school.

Mr Lawrence was a devoted family man. He and his widow Frances have four children, daughters Maroushka, 21, Myfwany, 19, Unity, 13, and a son Lucien, 8. They were yesterday comforting their mother at the family's semi- detached home in Ealing.