‘Strict is good – it moulds us into young gentlemen’
Five years ago, pupils were embarrassed to admit that they went to St Thomas the Apostle College – an inner-city school on the brink of closure. Last month, it was named Tes’ secondary of the year. Adi Bloom details the story of an amazing transformation
IN THE old days, people simply did not want to go to St Thomas the Apostle College. Such was its reputation, in fact, that even the current headteacher did not want to go there.
“I’d stupidly registered with a few headhunting agencies,” says Eamon Connolly, who at the time was deputy headteacher at Mossbourne Community Academy in East London, under future Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw.
“They said, ‘Do you fancy being head of an all-boys’ school in Peckham?’ I said, ‘You have to be kidding.’”
St Thomas the Apostle (“Stac” to those who go there) was everything that one would expect from an all-boys’ secondary in this historically deprived area of South London. The school was bottom of the borough’s league table for achievement, but top for juvenile crime.
Though Stac has space for 150 pupils in a year, in 2012 there were only 67 boys in Year 7. That same year, only 42 per cent of pupils achieved five A* to Cs at GCSE.
In 2016, 81 per cent of Stac boys attained five good GCSE passes, placing it second in the borough’s league table, behind a girls-only secondary. It had its first appeal over places. And, last month, the school was named Tes secondary of the year.
This was not something that the current sixth form could have foreseen when they started Year 7. “I used to say ‘I go to Stac’ like I was embarrassed,” says 17-year-old Emmanuel Otobo, who is sitting with friends in the dining hall.
“Other people would say, ‘Ugh, Stac boys,’ and you knew what they were thinking. Like, that you were low achievers, like you just weren’t focused. They thought that you were coming here for some kind of social life.”
‘It was about making a difference’
Most of the boys live on nearby council estates; in at least one case, a family of four lives in a single room. Many pupils are recent immigrants, and speak English as an additional language. When teachers took pupils on a day trip to see the skyscraper The Shard, several boys pointed at the Thames and asked whether it was the ocean. Peckham is fewer than three miles from the Thames.
But it was precisely these boys who changed Connolly’s mind, after his initial reluctance to consider the Stac headship. “I was just hooked,” he says, of his first visit to the school. “Talking to the boys is something quite special. The reason I got into education was to make a difference. Although the first days here were tough, it was very much about making a difference.”
When Connolly took up his post in 2012, the school was under threat of closure;