Hidden away behind a hedge, not far from Chantry Academy, is the best school in Ipswich. I have written about it before and I have made the same point. St Mark’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Stone Lodge Lane West is a remarkable school in some very unassuming buildings. It has been rated by Ofsted as Outstanding for many years now and its results are consistently amongst the highest in the country. You will understand why when you visit: this is a place that, rarely amongst schools, makes you want to go back to school yourself. I have never seen such an inviting, fun and engaging learning environment – not just the beautiful wall displays, or the school’s own history museum, or the comfy library, or the science laboratory, or the map room – but the atmosphere of calm and of happiness that pervades the whole place.
A great deal of that is down to Theresa Barker, the inspirational head teacher whose commitment to the children in her school means that she will never, ever accept second best. A small story will show you how. A few years ago I took Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, to see St Mark’s. He said it was one of the best schools he had seen – and he has seen a few. I was very proud of them and pleased for our town. I should have written to Mrs Barker to say so – and to thank them for the time they took to show us round. But I did not: it was one thank you letter amongst many that I should have penned but failed to do.
Do you know who else noticed this? Yep – Mrs Barker – who gave me a ‘I’m disappointed’ dressing down that I have not had since I was at school. And she was right to be disappointed – I should have written. The difference is that she didn’t care that it was the MP nor that I had brought the head of Ofsted with me: the simple fact is that she did not accept second best from anyone, whether it was me or the people who make her school so great or the pupils or their parents. There was not much that would make me respect Theresa Barker more but that telling-off certainly found the extra grade.
It’s almost six years since I first visited St Mark’s and it is even better now than it was then. But what is encouraging is that pursuit of excellence is finding more and more adherents across the town. There is a growing band of inspirational heads in Ipswich who are driving up standards in their own schools and in so doing helping to push the boundaries of what Ipswich schools can achieve.
The result is that after years of bumping along the bottom of the school league tables not just in our county but in the country, Ipswich is now powering its way through the pack.
That is not a reason to be pleased. We should be happy because what that ambition is creating is better results for individual pupils, which means a better chance in life for children across the town. It means an end to writing people off because of where they were born and brought up and a beginning to opportunity based on merit and hard work.
Because when you refuse to accept second best – as Mrs Barker did with me and with her school – you ensure that every child can be the best that they can be.