Bishop Challoner: 'This is a mission school'
posted on 28 January 2010
Bishop Challoner Catholic Collegiate School on Commercial Road, Tower Hamlets has just undergone a £47 million redevelopment project to build brand new facilities for the three schools that operate on the site. Patrick Daly went to the East End to talk to the Executive Head of Bishop Challoner, Catherine Myers, to find out what impact she believes the new development will have on the school and the local area.
By Patrick Daly
Bishop Challoner’s new school buildings are like nothing you’ve ever seen before. They are entirely supported by thick pillar ‘stilts’ and have state of the art room temperature controls, decorative mosaics, up to date ICT facilities in every classroom, and drama and dance studios galore. In plain terms – this is a dream place to come and learn.
Bishop Challoner was the first ever federated school in the country – meaning that it now incorporates three schools (a boys school, a girls school and a mixed sixth form) and seven youth work centres, all looked after by one team of managers.
At the helm is Executive Head, Catherine Myers, who has been head teacher of the school for nearly 18 years. She runs a school that is oversubscribed and that is in the top two percent of schools in the country.
Mrs Myers, however, remembers a time when things were very different. “When I first arrived, only 26% of those in the girls school (then called The Sisters of Mercy School) were achieving 5 GCSE’s at A*-C grade – now that number stands at 86%. And the boys school has gone from being a failing school to achieving 99% 5 A*-C grade GCSE’s. Those are not typical East End figures. This school is a good school and it’s over subscribed as a result.”
Catherine, who is to retire at the end of this academic year, points out that this change has not happened without a great deal of hard work and perseverance. “It hasn’t been an overnight success but anything that is an overnight success is not sustainable. What we’ve done is put in good management and we have a good strategy in place, as well as an experienced leadership team.”
Bishop Challoner is located in Tower Hamlets, a borough where 87% of the population are Muslim. In fact, in the school itself 73 mother tongues are spoken and 70% of children come from single parent families.
However, this racially diverse and poor area is a great contrast to what surrounds it. On either side of the school, stand financial epicentres such as Canary Wharf, The Gherkin and the Lloyds Building.
Catherine makes clear though that the school and the area has benefited from having the City so close. She says: “Despite being one of the most deprived schools in the country, I have 120 people come out of the City and the banks each week to come into the school and help volunteer – they run chess clubs, they mentor students and they help with reading and maths groups.
'I feel that we’ve got a job to do for a population which is poor, many of whom are marginalised. Our job is not to exclude these people - it’s to educate the marginalised. These volunteers from the City help us to do that. This school does so much for children who come from very poor backgrounds.”
It is evident from talking to Catherine that she is a strong willed woman with a great social conscience, a conscience that seems to have been nurtured through the social teaching of the Church.
When asked if the area that the school is situated in affects how Catholic the school can be, she replies fervently: “This is a mission school because the Catholic Church’s mission is to evangelise. If a school is 100% Catholic then how can it evangelise? The Church and this school has been very welcoming to other communities and in our last Ofsted report, we achieved an ‘Outstanding’ for community cohesion, which we were very pleased with.”
The newly built school facilities will not only be for the pupils of the school but also for those in the local community. The school is openly encouraging local people to come and use the school space, including the new sports hall and meeting rooms.
In a recent interview Bishop George Stack, the Chairman of the Education Commission, said that this opening up of the school’s facilities to the local people would provide “an extraordinary dimension” to the prospects of the area and the school.
He explained: “It can only be good that a religious institution, a set of Catholic schools, is opening itself up to community cohesion. The purpose of Catholic education is to give its pupils the tools for conviviality – to help them to bring their values, their own traditions and faith values, and to bring them into their education so that they can live well with others.”
In July 2009, Catherine Myers beat 500 head teachers from all over London to win the prestigious Royal Air Force ‘Head Teacher of the Year Award’. When asked how she felt about winning this award Catherine, through a shy smile, said: “The RAF award is awarded by teachers, for teachers so I felt it was a great honour because it was my colleagues recognising what I was doing. When I got that award it was a very nice feeling.”
Bishop George Stack also has nothing but encouraging things to say about the woman who has helped to turn the school around: “I regard Catherine as prophetic and visionary - she’s passionate for the well-being of her students. Cardinal Hume used to often say ‘Only the best is good enough for God’ but I think, for Catherine Myers, only the best is good enough for her pupils.
Catherine will be sorely missed after her retirement. She will leave, she says, with regret but with fantastic memories. “One of my best memories was when the Government agreed that we could turn this into the country’s first Federated school. I realised that I had done enough in the past for people to believe in what I was doing – I think that is still an all-time great memory. But now that I’ve overseen the building work, I feel that I’ll be going out on a high.”