The strides taken by one west London head teacher in difficult times
In Kensington, in the vicinity of Grenfell Tower, a head teacher and his largely Irish staff, are presiding over a remarkable academic transformation and challenging testament to London’s diversity.
The Head Teacher of Sion Manning Catholic Girls’ School on St Charles Square near Ladbroke Grove is Andrew O’Neill.
The 35-year old educator, a son of Irish parents, from Claremorris in Mayo and Carrickmacrossin Monaghan, one of them a Head Teacher, was until a couple of years ago Deputy Head at Sacred Heart in Harrow.
He was then asked to take on what was then a failing school with an unenviable, if not entirely deserved, local reputation.
In two years the turnaround has been remarkable with some of the best GCSE results in the tri-borough catchment area of Kensington, Westminster and Hammersmith.
As the next stage of that already remarkable transformation he is turning the previously all-girls’ school coeducational, or mixed, and changing its name to All- Saints.
The past couple of weeks the school has been inviting local parents to come along with a view to enrolling their sons and daughters in the 120 places that will be available from September 2018.
There have been Open Evenings, Open Afternoons, Open Mornings, posters in the local shops and cafes and signs that they are beginning to have an effect.
A school that had been studiously ignored by the sharp-elbowed, affluent upper middle class, Mumsnet types who live locally, recently saw queues that appeared to go around the block for one of those Open Evenings.
Mr O’Neill tells the Irish World: “It’s a massive challenge converting to being a mixed school, from an all girls school. It’s a big change.
“But I came in knowing that needed to happen, just to secure its future.
“We’re a 1950s building and near to us in the same area is the £24m Kensington Academy and Holland Park comprehensive which recently got an £86m building.”
That said the school, part of a Catholic hub on St Charles Square, is on some of the most valuable real estate the Diocese of Westminster owns.
The school’s pupil roll is currently about 35 per cent Catholic and many, if not most, of the staff are either Irish or of Irish descent.
“We have a significant number of non-Catholics, many of whom are Muslim, so we have diversity and everyone appreciates the Catholic ethos and the dedication of the staff.
“Whereas before the school might have been perhaps a little bit chaotic we now have a brilliant ethos and fantastic behaviour,” he says.
“Religious Education (RE) takes up ten per cent of our curriculum. Sports is also very important as are the core subjects of English, Maths and Science. We have fantastic GCSE results, 76 per cent passes in English and Maths at GCSE, one of the strongest in the tri-borough (of Kensington, Westminster and Hammersmith),” he says with pride.
“In addition to the core subjects of English Maths and Science and RE we have photography, textiles, ceramics, drama, debating, philosophy and we even have a journalism group. The staff are very committed and dedicated and make these possible,” he adds.
“There is one History teacher who was in here when I came in at 6:40 this morning and will be there late tonight.”
He points out that there used to be a pretty low level of parental engagement at parent teacher evenings of maybe 40 per cent but these days the lowest turnout was just over 88 per cent.
“Of the 95 pupils who left last year all have gone on to further education, most to Sixth Form to do A levels. Good GCSE results significantly broaden their educational horizons and allow them to pick what they want to do,” he says.
As for the cultural crossfertilisation that comes from having such a diverse mix of pupils and staff he points out that one of the teachers recently decided to teach the girls Gaelic Football.
“We recently fielded a girls’ Gaelic Football team of mainly Muslim girls. The first day when they were taught the rules was hilarious and they loved it, girls from Moroccan, Syrian and other backgrounds with no background in it at all – although several of the teachers here are from Ireland or of Irish descent – and they went and won the tournament they played in at Greenford,” he says.
“Boys coming to this school will go straight into that kind of atmosphere. We recently converted a huge classroom into use as a gym with weights, treadmill, exercise bikes, for use by the girls and the staff.
“This is a pretty bizarre area, we are two roads away from the street on which David Cameron and Michael Gove live and 200m away from the Golborne Estate, staff and pupils walk past huge amounts of affluence.
“We would have pupils who might cone from economically deprived backgrounds and others who come from Diplomatic families.”
But there is, obvious to any onlooker, a real sense of community and this demonstrated in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy last June.
“We did not lose any pupils to the Grenfell Tower fire but we did have one girl in the Tower who was on the lower floor but got out. We had 28 pupils who were directly affected.
“We had a fair few who had family members there, a lot of them in Year 11 who have just left the school, who came in the next day and sat exams. It was absolutely remarkable, they sat History and 45 per cent of them got an A or A*.
“We also provided classrooms for local primary school pupils whose teachers needed somewhere to be able to continue teaching because they did not have access to their own building in the aftermath.”
As to the immediate task at hand, he reflects: “I was recently asked if 11-year old boys coming to the school might be intimidated by all the older teenage girls.
“I replied by pointing out that older boys can be much more intimidating. Boys coming here will have really strong, positive, female role models. There is something really nice about that. And, of course, a first class education.”