This year, Jesus and Mary Language College topped the A level tables. Luke Coppen finds out how they did it 4 EAR GOO, D
send me a Iii illion pounds." That was
Mary Richardson's petition as she walked around the peeling corridors of Jesus and Mary Language College, a north London girls' school sitting in the shadow of one of Europe's bleakest housing estates.
It was the mid-1980s and the new headmistress surveyed the decaying school with dismay: "Parts of the school were derelict. It was very poorly equipped. It just needed doing over completely," she recalled.
If the building was ruinous, the school's morale was far, far worse. Discipline was
poor, behaviour atrocious. The
school was firmly wedged at
the bottom of the exam result tables and the governors had given Mrs Richardson an ultimatum: turn the school around or see it die.
The transformation, of course, was gradual. But by the year 2000, the results were staggering. Two-thirds of pupils now passed five GCSEs at grades A to C, compared with less than a tenth before. The school topped national A-Level tables and sent a record number of girls to Oxford and Cambridge.
The change at Jesus and Mary College is not only statistical. The dilapidated corridors have given way to polished wooden floors, freshly-painted walls and niches with gleaming saints in luxuriant undergrowth. The school's hulking facade — which must have seemed bleak and imposing 15 years ago — conceals twice as many pupils as before and a happy, young and enthusiastic staff. Behind it, is a spacious new building used for spiritual retreats, community work and recreation.
The transformation is tangible. But what was it that Mary Richardson did to turn the school around? The answer can be found in the school's name. Jesus and Mary Language College was founded by a dozen intrepid Sisters of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary in 1886. The sisters were inspired by the example of their foundress St Claudine Thevenet. Employing her philosophy of education, they taught the girls of !,he deprived London suburb of Harlesden to read, write and provide for their families. Somewhere over the next 100 years, the school became detached from its ethos. Mary Richardson was determined
to return to it.
"Claudine Thevenet was a women who lived during the French Revolution, in a time of great social turmoil," Mrs Richardson explained. "She picked girls off the street who had been orphaned and she trained them in the highest level of skills on the Jacquard loom, which in fact was the very earliest computer and an automated system for lacemaking. She trained them to such high levels that they were healhanted.
"Now that seems to me to be the most incredibly forward-looking ethos. And it seemed to me that I should be at the cutting-edge of whitehot technology, but embedded in the religious example of Claudine Thevenet."
Surprisingly, Mrs Richardson's first target for change were not the pupils, but teachers. She began a systematic training programme for them to ensure a consistent approach throughout the school. "In our school our first aim is to provide opportunities for the spiritual development
of our staff. That is our very first aim, because they can't give out if they haven't got it," she explained. "My staff are my main resource. If they aren't rich in spirituality, then they can't do it."
Early on, the new headmistress appointed a full-time
staff chaplain — Sister Assisi — whom she considers a key person in the transformation of the school. "The good that she has done in this school is unique," she said. "II anyone has turned this school around it's Sister Assisi. She is the heart of the school, I couldn't
have done it without her."
(Sister Assisi, a delightful nun who recently celebrated her 80th birthday, was bemused by the accolade. "I just listen to the person," she said. "Aren't so many of life's problems solved by having someone to listen to you?") With her teachers' spiritual welfare secured, Mrs Richardson turned to the school's 520 unruly pupils. Faced with a breakdown of discipline, execrable exam results and a deep sense of drift, she did something surprising. She drew again on the 18th century philosophy of Claudine Thevenet and decided that each pupil possessed a talent that was only awaiting discovery.
4 /RELIEVE in excellence just as Claudine Thevenet did," she explained. "She trained the girls up to the highest standards on the Jaquard machines so that they were headhunted. So it seemed to me that I could use technology to build up the girls to a very high standard. We want girls to be all over the world. We want them to be really strong women."
Her ambition was summed up concisely in the school's mission statement: "Our aim is to produce kind, confident, successful, strong women of faith ready to take up roles of leadership around the world."
This must have been a shock to Mrs Richardson's first girls, many of whom came from the nearby Stonebridge Park Estate, considered one of the most deprived in Europe. They had grown up there with the notion that academic success, a career and a prosperous family were far beyond them.
"None of us really have any self-confidence," Mrs Richardson argued. "We have to prove to ourselves that we can do it. We're proving that all our lives. We're constantly stepping off the edge. But gradually we come to believe it will be alright. Children need that proving to them."
To do this, she turned to Jim Colley, a confident and charismatic humanities teacher. Mr Colley had spotted an extraordinary intelligence in one of his pupils and begun to coach her for a place at Oxbridge. The achievement of that one girl, who graduated this year with a first from Cambridge. had a profoundly positive impact on the schooL "It raised their sights immediately," Mr Colley said. "We went over a few years from that one girl to having a very good sixth form. This year we had four girls with offers from Oxford and Cambridge. That's a 100 per cent strike rate this year. We have about a 90 per
cent strike rate over the last five Or six years."
But it wasn't merely the brightest pupils that concerned Mrs Richardson. Every pupil was encouraged to do their best in class and make the most of the school's remark
able extra-curricular programme (which included a Saturday language school, a film appreciation club, the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, summer schools and sundry foreign trips). The school's success was recognised in two laudatory Ofsted reports and, this year, in its designation as a national beacon school.
Over the summer, Mrs Richardson passed on the flame of her Beacon school to new headmistress , Geraldine Freear. "The future of the school is continued success," Mrs Freear said. "There has been a great deal of achievement already and I have every intention of building on that s ucschees si i"
inherits a school that really is a beacon to the countless deprived inner city schools, struggling with the problems of truancy, violence and academic failure. Jesus and Mary Language College is proof that these problems can be tackled and can be defeated.
As one of Mrs Freear's staff confided: "What helps me as a teacher here is that people hope to change the world for the good. In this school you can do that."