Christina White talks to Marie Stubbs about her battles to rescue St George's, Maida Vale
She could be a lady who lunches: smart in navy with her jacquard jacket neatly frilled at the cuffs. Her maquillage is immaculate, her nails neat and polished. She's slim but declines pastries "just plain coffee nothing fancy".
Appearances are deceptive. Marie Stubbs may have the manners and light Scots brogue of a Miss Jean Brodie but she's a fighter who rescued one of the toughest schools in London. The eyes have it — a pale sea green — a confident, resolute look.
The heavyweight boxer Frank Bruno said she was scary — she's only 5 ft 3 but will wear her highest heels in times of trouble. Bishops quake in her company.
In 2000, Lady Stubbs was plucked from retirement and given the brief to save St George's Catholic school in Maida Vale, West London, from imminent closure. Following the murder of head Philip Lawrence, stabbed to death outside the school gates, St George's was in freefall and had been placed on "special measures", education-speak for failure.
With a task force team, that included deputies Sean Devlin and Tracey O'Leary from her previous school, the Douay Martyrs, lckenham, she succeeded in rescuing St George's. The school was taken off special measures and Ofsted praised its Catholic focus and improved attendance record.
But it was a bruising encounter. Lady Stubbs "struggled" to make her vision clear. Governors questioned her methods one queried her insistence on the inclusion of gospel values in the school's mission statement. As relations deteriorated a whispering campaign heightened the tension and threatened the stability of the project. By December 2000, Ofsted had noted the disputes as an "unhelpful diversion" to the school's development.
Lady Stubbs maintains that she was abandoned to "petty bureaucracy" and is angry still at "the lack of support" from Westminster archdiocese. Her latest book Ahead of the Class, names and shames the key protagonists, well known figures in Church circles
who she insisted would rather play politics than deal with the reality of a tough woman.
"I think the archdiocese treated me very shabbily," she says.
She has little time for the politicking of the upper echelons of the institutional Church.
"I have a very deep respect for the sacramental Church and that's why I hang on in there and why I'm a committed Catholic."
She names her allies: solid, old-fashioned churchmen — Canon John McDonald, Fr Kit Cunningham and Fr George Dangerfield who she describes as the "spiritual brillo pads that brushed up my rusting soul".
Faith and family centre her. She shows me her new ruby and diamond ring, a 40th wedding anniversary present from her husband Sir William Stubbs. Sir William has had a distinguished career in education but in the saga of St George's he assumed a "Denis Thatcher" role, supportive and ever present but mentioned only in dispatches.
Working mothers, she says, are ideally suited to the multi-task stress of running a school.Through the early stages of her husband's career the Stubbs family moved to America and she brought up her three daughters separated from her own kin across the Atlantic back in Glasgow.
It forced her to be selfsufficient. She suggests that she was a less than perfect parent making it up as she went along — placating the baby with rusks as she attempted to mark A level English papers. She understands the stress of separation.
She admits to being troublesome and eccentric and revels in the label maverick. Lady Stubbs's methods were certainly unorthodox. She demanded standards of her staff and pupils, appropriate dress. manners, correct language, but she understood too the way humour can deflate aggression.
"More Shakespeare... less mascara" she admonished one destructive Lolita.
She would announce her presence with the words "Look out, ...grandma's coming".
She employed shock tactics. During one particularly stressful period she walked on to the school stage at a parents' evening chewing gum accompanied by her deputy in a baseball hat, both slouching like teenage rebels. It worked – the parents were appalled, pupils started to respect the dress code.
She is funny and self deprecating, it is easy to see why the children
warmed to her. Many of the pupils at St George's lacked human comfort, the closeness and love of family. Some were refugees living a transient existence caught between different
European cities like flotsam and jetsam on the tide.
Like very small children ihey craved human touch wanting to hold an arm, clutch at hands. The staff, gently but insistently, taught them to hold back, to have private space, "you can't cuddle other people's children," she says" it's not allowed".
But she showed them that she cared, that a hcadteacher could have authority but still be involved. She wears a silver charm bracelet that chinks and sparkles as she moves her hands. It was an ice-breaker at St George's, the younger children were fascinated by the history behind each personal charm. The silver boxing gloves were a present from Tracey and Sean in honour of the good fight and silver bootees commemorated the birth of Daisy her latest grandchild. A silver champagne bottle recalls the day St George's came off special measures and there is one gold charm — a knight in shining armour — her husband, dispatcher of the G and T when she finally appeared home from school.
She is a woman who said "why not?", whose driving force was not to let the children down. Much of what she writes in her book is, she insists, simple common sense "not rocket science".
She recalls a teacher at fever pitch threatening a child that if he touches her "it will be an assault". "It's almost as if she is trying to provoke an incident," she writes.
She has unlimited praise for the teaching profession but little time for poor, or sloppy teaching practice. She believes in giving children the chance to say sorry, to make amends rather than draconian punishment. She believes in lesson planning, respect for children, a moral framework and Catholic teaching — this was, after all, a Catholic school and she wanted to instill a sense of the sacred, of holy order.
E 4 instein said you can lose the wisdom of a tribe in a generation," she can lose the wisdom of a tribe in a generation," she
says. "People have forgotten that teaching is a craft, that we are inculturing and civilising the next generation. We need to look again at what it means to be a teacher.
"Thring [educationalist] said a teacher is 'the ward of the key that unlocks the child's mind' She wanted to enthuse the children with the joy of learning, to give them "a glimpse of the unknown". Her metaphor is loaves and hyacinths — give children the basics but also the chance to dream.
We discuss the facelessness of statistics, of children excluded from school. The previous evening the National Union of Teachers (NUT) , meeting in conference in Bournemouth, had fiercely defended the right of the profession to exclude problem children.
Lady Stubbs is not convinced. She admits to excluding some children in the course of over 30 years as teacher and head but it is a handful and she is not proud. Exclusion is failure and she does not deal with "failing things".
She repeats her mantra, these are children scarred by struggle and school is the only chance they've got: "What are we saying here — you can't toe the line, you can't fit in with what we're giving you so goodbye? I can't understand that. I would say to the NUT in what way do you propose to take that child's education forward? Ask yourself that question."
Contrary to her public persona she is not superwoman. The battles of Maida Vale nearly broke her and she suffered a bout of pneumonia. She can see the humorous side now: "chocolate kept me going and sitting in the bath and drinking gin." She took strength from St Catherine of Siena. "She flung herself down on her kneeler and said to God, 'It is my will that you do not delay any longer'. I love that."
Lady Stubbs found faith in unexpected sources. Warweary from disputes with governors and the archdiocese, she embraced the support of ordinary people: the dinner ladies, the school cleaners, the caretaker. These were the people who helped to transform the school, who made it bright and welcoming. "They were the true Christians. If Christ came back he'd be with them," she says.
There is a strong sense throughout the hook that many people half hoped she would not succeed. She believes the archdiocese did not consider her to be "Catholic enough".
Certain members of her teaching staff were implacibly opposed to her methods. Eight resignations came within the first year "They wanted me to fail," she says. "We'll get her at last. That arrogant bumptious Marie Stubbs."
Frank Bruno came to the school for prizegiving, one of a number of celebrity guests — including actor Ralph Fiennes and Cherie Booth QC — who were brought in to inspire the children. Bruno was an apposite choice. Lady Stubbs's tenure at St George's was marked by the physical: fights between children, battles with the diocese, the blatant physical animosity of staff who would fold their arms and look skyward as she fought to be heard.
But the young Marie Stubbs had attended primary school with ex-tenement children and she knew how to hit back. "Know thine enemy," she says. She would pray for the "wellpoisoners" the staff leaking sensational lines to a waiting press and she warned recalcitrant colleagues to look to their consciences, they faced a higher authority.
She says the men in black, the "petty-fogging bureaucrats", underestimated her. I think it is fair to say she underestimated herself. Joan Chittester has just published a book about the importance of struggle in life and the transformation of the soul that results. Marie Stubbs had proved her professional and academic credentials – taking.Douay Martyrs, a failing school, to Beacon status, leading a problem girls unit in south London – but the struggle for St George's tested her in unexpected ways. You sense that the memory of the "lost children" will stay with her. She talks now of some future role with children in need, perhaps with the Catholic Children's Society, lost souls are her speciality.
Throughout her tenure at St George's she lived with ghosts, the damaged reputation of the school, the children failed by the system and the memory of Philip Lawrence. She took down the memorial clock and pictures of the late headmaster mementoes that were handed back to the family.
She was conscious of treading on dreams but insisted the school had to move forward, could not be locked forever in tragedy. "Children live in the present and our job is to give them a future," she says.
There is genuine regret that she is no longer involved in the life and day to day running of the school. The task force that lifted St George's from the mire was set aside in favour of new faces and someone else's vision. She was accused of attempting to interfere in the selection process and was not invited to join the board of governors. Generals who win the war are rarely asked to keep the peace. She has made no secret of her personal disappointment that her deputy, Sean Devlin, did not succeed to the headship. Philip Jakszta, a head from Tower Hamlets, was appointed. This year the school received an excellent Ofsted report.
Her parting shot to the diocese was to write to David Blunkett. the then Secretary of State for Education, and demand scrutiny and openness in diocesan structures and appointments. The Cardinal she said made "judicious moves" with various managerial positions but she challenges the Church to be accountable. "Openness is challenging; transparency is very challenging."
She argues that the admissions procedure of some Catholic schools should also he scrutinised. "I can look in the mirror and say to myself you took them all, you didn't pick and choose."
For now she is happy to play Grandma but Lady Stubbs needs the thrill and cut of the chase. Would she do it again? "I might consider it. Never say never," and she throws her head hack and laughs. Pure Jean Brodie. I hope the archdiocese is listening...
Ahead of the Class is published by John Murray.