The view of St George's Catholic School, in west London's Maida Vale, is both all-too-familiar and very different from what I'd expected. The curved roof-line of its main assembly hall and the sand-coloured classroom blocks, with cell-like metal windows, all framed against a bleak backdrop of council flats, has regularly been on the front pages and TV news since December 1995. That was when its then head teacher, Philip Lawrence, was stabbed to death at the gates while attempting to protect one of his pupils from a local gang. The image of St George's has become something of an icon for the problems of inner-city comprehensives.
It was used again when one of Lawrence's successors, Lady Marie Stubbs, published Ahead of the Class, a memoir of her time from 2000 to 2001 spent "turning the school round" which was made into a prime-time TV drama with Julie Walters in the central, triumphant role.
But if you approach this 600-strong school from another angle, the backdrop changes dramatically. It is also flanked by huge Georgian villas with plaster pineapples on their gateposts, standing in the tree-lined streets that lead up via Abbey Road Studios to swanky St John's Wood. St George's isn't, as you might have been led to expect, in an urban wasteland. It stands cheek by jowl with some of the most desirable and expensive residential areas of the capital.
The gap between image and reality neatly sums up the dilemma facing the school's head, Martin Tissot, appointed in the summer of 2006. Everyone thinks they know all about St George's and its problems. Few are prepared to take a second look and allow their preconceptions to be challenged.
"One of the first things I did when I took over as head," says Tissot, "was to remodel the reception area. It gave such a terrible impression of the school. The receptionist was also the school nurse and so you'd walk in past what looked like a war zone of limp bodies. It reinforced all the prejudices that people have about St George's."
However, the changes this wiry, energetic man has brought go more than skin-deep. By the time he took over, standards had once again reached a point – only 27 per cent of A to C passes at GCSE at its nadir - where the school's future was in doubt. Yet, 12 months on, he has been rewarded by a positive Ofsted report. The pass rate is up to 45 per cent and unauthorised absences are coming down to close to the national average.
Quotations from Ofsted are picked out on a large noticeboard in the new reception area: "An improving school which provides a satisfactory quality of education"; "Following a period of decline, standards are now rising". I'm in the middle of reading through them when, from a side-room, come raised voices as a member of staff remonstrates with a persistent late-comer. Immediately it recalls St George's reputation as a place where pupils are unruly and out of control.
But there is another way of looking at it. Tissot has been credited with introducing a "zero-tolerance" approach to bad behaviour into the school. It is not a phrase he likes, but he is emphatic that those who disrupt lessons will be removed because they are "barriers to learning". It is not that he is lacking in sympathy for those from difficult and deprived backgrounds, but poor discipline has to be confronted and tackled, he says. It can never be tolerated.
As he takes me with him on his morning tour of the school, Tissot is reluctant to comment as I try to sort out myth from reality about his predecessors. Neither Frances Lawrence, Philip's widow, or Marie Stubbs – who was reported to be disappointed that her preferred successor was not appointed in her place – have maintained links with the place, according to reports. All Tissot will say is that Stubbs was only there for 17 months – a short time to change a culture of failure that has hung over St George's since its heyday as the heavily oversubscribed secondary modern of choice for Catholic parents in the late 1960s.
"But then I've only been here just over a year," he adds, with a smile. The difference, though he is far too polite to draw comparisons, is that he is clearly intent on staying here for the long haul. When he talks about driving up standards and persuading potential pupils and their parents to think again about coming to St George's, he speaks not of the next Ofsted, but in terms of five years.
Salvation for this smaller than average comprehensive depends on its achieving a balanced intake of pupils. At present, only 65 per cent are Catholic, though all the other Catholic secondaries in the area – including the highly successful London Oratory and Cardinal Vaughan schools – are heavily oversubscribed. St George's has almost 40 per cent with special educational needs and almost 50 per cent with English as a second language. Few of those who attend put it as their first choice and too many end up here because no one else wants them. It is all part of a downward cycle that the memory of Philip Lawrence and Marie Stubbs only makes harder to reverse. The school's notoriety tends to precede it. So whatever made him take the job?
Tissot, a descendant of the Impressionist painter James Tissot, who once had a studio in Maida Vale, started off as an economics teacher, working mainly in London's East End, before taking on the headship of St Michael's, Bermondsey, another inner city school where levels of academic attainment were low. In eight years there he boosted them by 40 per cent. He joined a School Improvement Partnership team at Westminster, and that is what brought him to St George's.
"The LEA were very worried about it," he says. "The head was going. I came for a visit and I just thought, 'yes'. I'd grown up not far away in Cricklewood, so I knew St George's of old as a secondary modern with a reputation for being a bit rough. And I saw its potential. I knew I could sort it out. I know that sounds arrogant, but children are the same everywhere. I've worked in all sorts of places, with all sorts of children, with all sorts of problems, and I've seen how they can be encouraged to succeed."
There were other obstacles to overcome. He has inherited an accumulated and long-standing deficit of £1m – the largest, he believes, of any school in the country. It has meant that money is always tight. In the past, staff retention had been highlighted as a problem by Ofsted, but he has brought in new blood, some of it through contacts maintained with those who trained as St Michael's, and others via the Teach First programme which draws in bright young graduates to learn on the job. "You can't beat their calibre and enthusiasm," he says.
Behind the infamous façade he is constructing a well-organised learning routine. Tissot is unashamedly old-fashioned in insisting on a uniform code, politeness, and respect. As he walks about, he is stopping constantly to pick up litter.
There is a system of black crosses for bad behaviour. Two in a week in your book and you get a Friday evening detention. Three and you have to come in on a Saturday morning. Those who disrupt classes are taken out and go to the educational support unit housed in Portakabins away from the main body of the school. He makes use of exclusions, but, contrary to his zero-tolerance image, permanent exclusions have dropped from eight in the year before he arrived to only three in the past 12 months.
Perhaps the truest measure of the difference Tissot has already made comes from ex-pupils. There are two who have recently joined the staff, one as a maths teacher and the other assisting in PE. "It is just so much calmer," says one. "I can't get over how quiet it is compared with when I was here five years ago." The other says: 'There is a much greater feeling of security."
It is going to be a tough fight to change the fixed ideas of the sceptics. Tissot, though, is undaunted, but realistic. He quotes the example of Philip Lawrence to show the scale of the task. "He was a hero. He went on to the street to defend a pupil. His murderer didn't come from St George's. Yet his death has been used against the school, as evidence that there is something wrong with us, when what it really tells us is something positive about the place."
The key dates
Head teacher, Philip Lawrence, murdered at school gates
Fails Ofsted inspection. Head, Margaret Ryan, leaves after gang fight spreads to classrooms
After two-week closure to ensure pupils' safety, Lady Stubbs brought out of retirement as head
Ofsted describes school as good. Stubbs retires.
Ofsted praises new head Philip Jakszta.
Jakszta resigns. Question marks over standards and school's future
Academy status suggested, but teaching unions opposed
Martin Tissot appointed head
Ofsted judges "capacity for further improvement" as "good"Reuse content