'Philip Lawrence' school branded a nightmare
Victims of the class divide
By Kevin Ovenden
ST GEORGE'S Secondary School in west London was branded one of the "worst schools in Britain" by sections of the media last week. Discipline problems hit the school two weeks ago. Tory-controlled Westminster council responded by extending the half term for a week and threatening to close the school. It has sent in contractors from Nord Anglia, a profit-making company, to run St George's.
New Labour education ministers and advisers are calling for "tough measures". The papers have recalled the tragic death of St George's headteacher Philip Lawrence five years ago to portray the school as a war zone. Lawrence was stabbed to death as he tried to stop teenagers attacking a pupil outside the school.
But the problems in St George's stem from the attack on comprehensive education launched by the Tories and continued under New Labour. The market free-for-all in education has given the middle classes a choice of schools. The school borders the St John's Wood area that is packed with some very wealthy people.
Most of their children go to private schools. Others go to schools in neighbouring boroughs which have opted out and are selective, such as the London Oratory School, where Tony Blair sends his children. This process has turned St George's and other inner-city schools into comprehensives in name only. The school has been left with the most needy children and few resources to help them. The level of deprivation among St George's pupils is staggering.
- Some 57 percent of pupils are on the special needs register.
- Over half are eligible for free school meals.
- Over half do not have English as a first language.
Despite this one teacher told Socialist Worker, "Over the last few years this school has not been a war zone.
"You would not believe it after reading the recent press stories, but there was a calm atmosphere at the school. There were a number of incidents which happened on the Tuesday before half term. They were serious. But press talk of Yardie gangs, drug dealing and open warfare is a huge exaggeration." Pupils' achievement at St George's has improved over the last three years, even by the narrow measure of exam results. GCSE results are up. And results of English tests for 14 year olds hit the national average. The problems that St George's faces are a direct result of Tory and New Labour policies.
- Westminster council cut half a million pounds from its education budget last year.
- There were four special educational needs teachers at St George's four years ago. Now there is only one.
- The number of teachers of English as an additional language has been cut from four to two over the same period.
- The school chaplain, who pupils found easy to talk to, was fired last year.
The school management has not fought these cuts. It has gone along with New Labour and compounded the problems. That has demoralised staff. Fifty staff have left the school over the last four years. The pupils have felt insecure. "The children would constantly say, 'They are going to close this school because it's crap'," says one teacher. These are the factors that led to the incidents before the half term. The same pressures exist in many inner-city schools. New Labour's answer is to increase those pressures.
St George's is due to become part of an Education Action Zone in May. Incredibly, that will give Railtrack a say in running it. The school is threatened with being shut and reopened in the kind of "fresh start" initiative education secretary David Blunkett favours. Pupils at St George's do not need to be the guinea pigs in New Labour's experiments on schools. They need a decent education system designed to meet children's needs, funded by taxing those in their St John's Wood mansions.
Exclude or educate?
THE NEWSPAPERS claim the problems at St George's stem from the headteacher's reluctance to exclude pupils for bad behaviour. They hailed Philip Law rence's "achievement" in excluding 60 pupils in his last three years. But the fact that he had to get rid of more and more pupils shows that exclusions do not address underlying problems.
The new head rightly wanted to avoid exclusions. But she did not put in place the support needed to keep pupils in school. St George's used to have a "sanctuary" where needy children could go to be taught for a while and then put back into class. It was cut last year.