Murdered head's school in academy row

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The school where the headteacher Philip Lawrence was stabbed to death 10 years ago next month is involved in controversy over a plan to turn it into a government flagship academy.

Teachers' leaders oppose the idea of St George's Roman Catholic School, a comprehensive in Westminster, becoming an academy because they fear it could become more selective, repeating what happened at the London Oratory School in nearby Hammersmith, where the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, sends his children.

Parents of prospective pupils at the London Oratory are asked about their religious commitment. Critics have claimed this policy - given the green light by Ruth Kelly the Secretary of State for Education, last month - can lead to "selection by stealth".

Officials at Westminster City Council said the academy plan was "in its early stages". A spokesman for the Roman Catholic diocese of Westminster said: "In partnership with Westminster council, we have put in an expression of interest in an academy to the Department for Education and Skills. Once we have a reply, should it be in the affirmative, we would carry out a feasibility study." The sponsor for the academy would be the diocese.

The plan is opposed by the National Union of Teachers. Bernard Regan, its Westminster representative and an inner London executive member for the union, said: "It would take the school outside the control of the local education authority with the possibility that it would draw up its own admissions criteria. We are worried this would see the reintroduction of selection and more competition between schools when what we need is a coherent admissions strategy for all secondary schools in the area."

If the scheme does get the go ahead, it would be the fourth academy in the borough. Already North Westminster Community School, one of the largest comprehensives in the country, is being turned into two academies. One is run by the United Learning Trust, a Christian schools company which runs a chain of independent schools, and the other by a property development company.

Another charity, ARK, which is financed through high-risk hedge-fund dealing, has had an açademy proposal in neighbouring Islington turned down. It is also trying to open an academy in the borough. Mr Regan said: "We feel very strongly that little account is being taken of the nature of the community in the academy proposals. He believes the area was over-reliant on faith schools.

The NUT has written to the Diocese of Westminster seeking more details of the proposals but has received no response.

St George's, in Maida Vale, has had a chequered decade since the death of Philip Lawrence. He was killed at his school gates, trying to rescue a 13-year-old pupil who was being attacked with a machete by a 15-year-old in a gang from a neighbouring school.

The headteacher was widely credited with turning the school round with "tough love". He expelled 60 troublemakers during his three years at the helm - more than any previous head - but the number of GCSE passes achieved by pupils trebled.

After his death, the school ran into hard times and failed an inspection by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog. At one stage, it had to be closed for two weeks on safety grounds because of the behaviour of the pupils, including an assault on Mr Lawrence's successor as head, Margaret Ryan. At that stage, Dame Marie Stubbs - played by Julie Walters in the ITV drama production Ahead of the Class - was tempted out of retirement to try to rescue the school.

She succeeded by bringing in role models including Lenny Henry, Kevin Keegan and Cherie Booth to talk to and inspire the pupils, and using the public address system to pipe music ranging from Bob Marley to opera through the corridors to create the right mood.

She was succeeded by Philip Jakszta, the former acting head of a Catholic school in Tower Hamlets, after governors overlooked her deputy, Sean Devlin, the man she wanted to replace her. Mr Jakszta continued her good work, winning a glowing report from Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, and praise for his leadership. He has now quit, leaving the school without a full-time head. An acting head, Barry Fenby, has taken over.

Council officials have gone to great lengths to distance the school from the memory of Mr Lawrence, preferring, they say, to "move on" and draw a veil over the past. Frances, the widow of Mr Lawrence, has no contact with the school. The killer, Learco Chindamo, now 25, is in an open prison preparing for release.

As Mr Blair strives to meet his target of 200 private academies by 2010, the definition of schools which qualify for academy status has widened from failed ones to successful inner city schools. All they need is a private sponsor who could be either a company or a faith-based group.