Headteacher Barrie O’Shea on taking over ‘frightening’ Duncombe Primary School 29 years ago

PUBLISHED: 16:15 24 January 2018 | UPDATED: 16:23 24 January 2018

Barrie O'Shea, headteacher of Duncombe Primary School in Sussex Way. Picture: Polly Hancock

Barrie O'Shea, headteacher of Duncombe Primary School in Sussex Way. Picture: Polly Hancock


Barrie O’Shea thought he had made a mistake when he became headteacher of ‘frightening’ Duncombe Primary in 1990. He was wrong. The Gazette finds how he lifted a troubled school from its lowest point.

Barrie O'Shea, headteacher of Duncombe Primary School in Sussex Way. Picture: Polly HancockBarrie O'Shea, headteacher of Duncombe Primary School in Sussex Way. Picture: Polly Hancock

When being interviewed for the headteacher’s job at Duncombe Primary School in 1990, Barrie O’Shea did everything he could to get rejected.

He’d have been horrified if he knew he’d still be in the same job 28 years later.

Barrie had been working for Christ the King Primary School, in Tollington Park, Finsbury Park, when he was approached for an interim position at Duncombe in 1989. Duncombe, in Sussex Way, Upper Holloway, is only half a mile away. But Barrie had never heard of it.

He recalls: “Duncombe was banned from the local sports association, the swimming pool, the library.”

The school was so troubled that it was meant to close that summer, with the 180 pupils being redistributed to surrounding schools. When he took the interim position, Barrie was the sixth acting headteacher that year. It was only May.

“Her Majesty’s Inspectorate,” Barrie continues, “decided it was the most troubled school in the country.

“It wasn’t a nice place. It was a frightening place. There was kids stoning cars outside. It was terrible. It was as bad as it could be.”

Barrie stood up to bullying – from pupils and parents – but also offered compassion. The closure plans were scrapped, and on returning that September, parents came to him with a petition demanding he stayed.

“I said: ‘Why do you want me?’ I didn’t take any nonsense from anyone. They said: ‘We don’t really like you, but you are doing a lot for us.’

“The inspector kept asking me: ‘Would you apply to be there full-time?’ I said absolutely not.

“I went to the interview, at Islington Town Hall in January 1990, not caring about the job. It was a disaster. But they phoned me that afternoon offering the job. I took it, thinking: ‘This is a mistake.’”

Barrie, 64, of Winchmore Hill, was wrong. “We started out from the lowest point we could start at. But over the years, slowly we built a great team.

“A key thing was working with the community. We are probably the most community focused school in the country. We do as much for parents as pupils. If they have any issue, whether it’s with pay or housing, we never turn anyone away.

“Our children are beautifully behaved, caring, articulate ambassadors who go on to prosper.”

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