WHEN DAME MARIE Stubbs was tempted from retirement three years ago and asked to rescue St George's school in Maida Vale, London, from a threat of closure, the task seemed hopeless. Five years previously, its principal Philip Lawrence was murdered while trying to protect a student from knife-wielding youths. As the school failed to recover from the shock it was eventually placed in 'special measures' by the British government. Staff and student morale was rock-bottom - something needed to be done. That something was bringing in the 'formidable superhead' - as she was known - the impeccably powdered and manicured Stubbs. The fact that the school was deemed a national example of good practice after only four terms was a remarkable achievement by any standards. 'My biggest constraint was the time frame,' she says. 'It all had to be achieved in about a year or so. It should probably have taken about five to seven years.' Opinions vary as to the contributions made by various people involved - and there were many - and Stubbs' reign was fraught with tension and controversy; some of it acted out in the national press. Eight teachers resigned and staff boycotted the May Ball she held for final year students at the end of the year. But there is little doubt that the single-minded determination of a woman driven by an almost religious and simple commitment to seeing children given their entitlement of a fair chance of a decent education had a fundamental impact on the school's improvement. Her down-to-earth common sense and traditional values surprised many at first. She insisted on old-fashioned good manners and that people speak and act respectfully towards other. No violence, indiscipline or truancy was to be tolerated. Teachers were forbidden to refer to students as 'kids'. 'I was bewildered by different people's perceptions and I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland,' she tells me in a rich Scottish brogue. 'It was hugely disappointing that some of the major agencies I worked with seemed to be a little slow to perceive what I was trying to ask for in terms of help and support.' Stubbs attributes much of her eventual success to a clear focus on teaching and learning. 'I spent a lot of time at St George's analysing what it is to be a teacher and a learner,' she says. 'Every school should go back regularly to look at its mission and do it in a real way, not just looking at targets you have to meet but asking 'what are we doing here?' Societies are paying for schools and teachers have a wonderfully privileged position because we're affecting generations to come through our work.' She enrolled the help of a number of famous visitors to speak to students and act as inspirational role models, ranging from Cherie Blair to Ralph Fiennes and Kevin Keegan. Working with teachers was a challenge at times. 'Some people had lost their way a bit and some found a richness that maybe they'd never shared with people before,' she says. But her respect for the profession and individuals in it remained undimmed. 'Teaching is a wonderful craft and I was lucky to grow up in a time when good practitioners taught me mine,' she says. 'When I was a young teacher, you very much respected the older practitioners and you wanted to know how they went about things. Teachers touch greatness in children; they are the candles that light others by destroying themselves. 'We need to support them because the work they do is phenomenally important and it is a sad waste of talent if they become disillusioned or dissatisfied.' She sees the job of a headmistress as maintaining a productive equilibrium. 'Children have to come to school to learn and therefore the school has to gear up to make that an interesting experience. Teachers have to enjoy coming to work and the professional context in which they work. It is a head's job to get those two things in balance.' Parents were another source of challenge and inspiration. There were many at St George's frustrated by a range of factors from social deprivation to difficulties with English. 'You have to get below the anger shown by some parents and that can be very tiring. I have never met a parent who did not long for their children to succeed.' She used a number of strategies to help including providing interpreters at interviews, setting up a parents' room, translating letters, celebrating different cultures and providing copies of the National Curriculum in different languages and illustrated by Quentin Blake called the Learning Journey. Stubbs has visited Hong Kong several times. She was taken with the enthusiasm of students here. 'There was a tremendous vivacity and intenseness about the children going to school and to learning. I saw it in China, too.' She does worry, however, that different cultures might be susceptible to the corrupting influences present in some elements of westernisation. She hates seeing students slouching about in baseball caps - which she banned at St Georges, along with chewing gum. 'We need an appreciation of the needs of young people in the complex 21st century and engage them and understand them and help them unpack some of the baggage they bring with them during their complex lives.' Stubbs is convinced that her principles for school improvement would apply equally well to Hong Kong as England. 'A successful school is one that re-examines itself from time to time and one that is sensitive to the group of people it's got. You have what you have. You've got to be pitching the school at least two years ahead of where you're comfortable to be. This can sometimes seem too much.' She sees her job as leader as helping raise everybody's sights above the daily grind and the banal and helping them see the joy in working in education. Describing herself as very demanding - she never expected to be liked - she also stresses the need to be a human who sees the messiness of life and not being controlled by structural imperatives or procedural minutiae. 'You have to have some fun, maybe even be a bit zany. I love a good laugh.' There is a need for rigour though. 'We need to keep asking how we can make things better; how can children best access information for learning?' Despite her emphasis on elements of good practice and behaviour of days gone by, she recognises that not everything back then was better. 'Things used to be a bit casual in the past. In those days, we wouldn't really know if a school was good or not. People would make uninformed assumptions about the quality of a school based on personal and anecdotal factors. Nowadays, some would say things have gone too far collecting so much data for constant re-examination, but we need to make judgments of schools based on reasonable evidence.' She welcomes increased accountability of schools, but cautions against burying the essence of education beneath irrelevant administration and unproductive introspection. Stubbs' beliefs in the tenets of Catholicism reinforce her sense of purpose. Her commitment to justice, truth, peace and love underpin her educational philosophy. But she is at pains to stress her liberalism is not idealism or naive faith. 'It is the same in other faiths. It is part of the worldwide response to the mysteries of life. I just worry about a modern world driven by individual gratification.' Keen to spread her message, Stubbs' account of her time at St George's is shortly to be released as a paperback. The hardback version of Ahead of the Class (John Murray, 2003) sold out. She claims to have been persuaded to write the book, but clearly revels in the publicity and proudly boasts that the book's film and television rights have been sold. 'Although we should welcome change, every generation is unique, we should not lose what I call the wisdom of the tribe,' she says. Stubbs spends much of her time at conferences and appearing in the media promoting her particular brand of hope and a vision unclouded by self doubt. Whether one sees Stubbs as an eccentric anachronism, or an inspirational leader, remains a matter of opinion. What is never in doubt, however, is her sincerity. She is fond of quotations and peppers her conversation with them as well as graphic pastoral images. She wants her efforts to have made a difference. 'George Bernard Shaw put it a lot better than I could when he said 'the great joy in life is to find your mighty purpose'.' During an intriguing and lively interview, it was apparent that Marie Stubbs had found hers.