Rainbow warrior: How a head battled to save his inner-city school from the council

After a bitter battle against Camden Council, head Sean O'Regan has won a campaign to keep Edith Neville School as it is – proudly unconventional.

Sean O'Regan has just fought off what he considered a serious threat to his primary school and its children. He is the head of Edith Neville in Somers Town, whose cramped building lies behind the shiny new St Pancras station and the British library. Somers Town's decaying social housing has a high proportion of Bangladeshi families, which means that Edith Neville has a much higher proportion of Bangladeshi children than the area, because there are three Christian faith schools nearby, whose admissions criteria favour Christians.

Edith Neville is strict about admitting those who live closest to it. So an Edith Neville classroom is a colourful collection of headscarves. One class has 100 per cent Muslim children and 55 per cent of the intake is Bangladeshi in origin. The next biggest group is Somali.

The threat came from plans to build a new academy in Swiss Cottage, one of the wealthier bits of Camden. The Frank Barnes School for deaf children had to be cleared out to make way for it. Edith Neville School needs to be rebuilt. So the idea was that its new building should house Frank Barnes School, and the two schools would work together.

It made no sense educationally, says O'Regan. "We have 26 spoken languages here. If we added fully signing language, it would be bad for all the children." Nonetheless, in 2007 Camden Council decided to go ahead. O'Regan recalls a councillor telling him: "It's a forced marriage. Make it work." He campaigned vigorously against the plan. Eventually, he took the extreme step of telling the council that his school was considering applying for foundation status. As soon as this happens, the local education authority cannot change its status.

The academy project has been rescued with a different solution. O'Regan's concern now is to get his new building – and it's urgent. He is working in a structure that is supposed to be big enough for 155 children, and he has 262. The original substantial two-storey Victorian building was torn down in 1972, and the present one thrown up in the summer vacation. It was built to last 25 years, and is now well into its third decade.

In 1997, it began to fall down, and had to be underpinned. Over the next few years, O'Regan fundraised for, and oversaw the construction of, a remodelled interior. Every inch of space appears to be in use all the time – a lesson was being conducted in what looked like the corridor outside the head's office. There is no library. The small and tatty hall has pupils crammed into it for assembly, lunch and PE. The roof leaks, some of the walls are cracked, but the place is bright and cheerful. There are high railings round the school, because the grounds were used by the many prostitutes who used to work from Kings Cross, and needles and condoms were being found all over the bushes.

Yet people are desperate to get their children into the school. Ofsted says that Edith Neville Primary is an outstanding school, which makes "a really positive difference to the pupils". It adds: "The outstanding leadership, teaching and learning and an exciting curriculum, contribute to pupils' success."

In science, almost all pupils already reach the higher Level 5 in national tests. In 2007, the school performed in the top four per cent of schools nationally for adding value to pupils' attainment. And it's as happy a school as you could wish to see.

Children call teachers by their first names. It's fashionable to sneer at this, but children do not run riot because they call the head "Sean." The two poised 10-year-olds who showed me round told me that the Year 4 teacher is called Dave, but "when we were in Year 4 we had a teacher called Nick".

As for uniforms, O'Regan says that people think a uniform is a short cut to raising standards of behaviour, but it isn't. The local church schools have uniforms, so some parents see them as a cut above Edith Neville, "but" says Mr O'Regan "this is not borne out by the results."

For many of the children, school is an oasis of calm in their lives. Some have been in war zones, and have dreadful memories. Some arrive with almost no education. I watched a little boy of nine interpreting for two new children. O'Regan recalled a nine-year-old, just arrived from Peshawar, who had never seen a computer, and when a teacher gave her a pencil, she had no idea what to do with it because she hadn't been to school before.

"The other children were falling over themselves to help her. My staff are very diverse and speak a great many languages" says O'Regan.

O'Regan went to Edith Neville as a 26-year-old class teacher in 1990. The school has been his life. He started dating his future wife, Nasima Rashid, when she came to teach there. She is now the assistant head.

In 1996, with the school at the bottom of the borough's league tables, the head resigned and the deputy head died suddenly, so O'Regan was made acting head. The governors advertised the headship twice, and O'Regan refused to apply. The third time, he did. "I'm not a head teacher, I'm the head teacher of Edith Neville School," he says.

"Male life expectancy in Somers Town is 11 years younger than in Fitzjohns which is just one and a half miles away. But I don't want the children to know that."

It's hard to put your finger on exactly what it is O'Regan does that works. His wife Nasima says it has something to do with involving children in decision-making – "they feel valued and listened to". It's also something to do with involving and welcoming parents. But it's the aura he gives off, too. O'Regan took me past a line of six-year-olds waiting to enter a classroom, and a girl in a red headscarf threw her arms round him and said: "Sean, I'm missing you."

Francis Beckett's book, 'How to Create a Su ccessful School', (£14.99, biteback) based on his interviews with heads published in Education & Careers, is out this week.

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