Eight years ago, Michael Merrick and his wife moved from St Andrews, where he was partway through a PhD and the family were eating “beans on toast” every night, to Carlisle, where he took up a teaching job in a local Catholic secondary school.

They’ve lived in the town ever since, and he’s now deputy head of a tiny Catholic primary, St Cuthbert’s.

The Merricks’ four school-age children – they have six in total, which explains why I was picked up from the station in his “taxi” – attend the city’s other, larger primary. In fact, it was the headteacher of that school, St Margaret Mary, who persuaded Merrick to give up his secondary school teaching job and take on what seemed to be an impossible challenge.

The move was “career suicide”, says Merrick cheerfully, and his executive head Chris Wilkins jokingly concurs. St Cuthbert’s hadn’t been Ofsted “good” for 17 years. It was leaking middle-class children and achieving zero per cent combined attainment at key stages 1 and 2, and it had gone through six heads in eight years. “They were crying out for consistency,” recalls Luke Denny, deputy head of St Margaret Mary and the third member of the St Ninian Catholic Federation’s senior leadership team.

Sitting in a meeting room surrounded by icons, we’re discussing serious topics after an initial warm-up act from the trio, in which West-Cumbrian Denny played the joker, Merrick the academic, and Wilkins had the final word.

(L to R) Executive head Chris Wilkins with deputy heads Michael Merrick and Luke Denny

After a call was put out to local Catholic schools, the governing board of St Margaret Mary – a historically successful school of which Wilkins was then headteacher – agreed to form the federation with the struggling primary and combine their governing bodies. “It was part of their mission that they had to say yes,” Wilkins says. “Catholic schools are hugely disproportionately in more deprived areas, and it’s precisely because of what we call ‘preference for the poor’,” explains Merrick, whom Wilkins recruited along with Denny.

Catholic schools are hugely disproportionately in more deprived areas

There’s only one direction to go from zero, and St Cuthbert’s pulled it off, shooting up to 40 per cent of pupils achieving the expected standard in reading, writing and maths in the first year, and in 2018 this tally has risen to 55 per cent. Last autumn it secured the elusive “good” rating from the inspectorate, just 15 months after the federation took over the school.

Understandably, it’s been a long journey to build relationships with parents.

“We were delivering leaflets a few weeks back,” relates Merrick, “and we came across one parent whose child used to come here, and gosh, did she have some strong words about the school! We just had to do what you do in these situations.

You know, they’re talking to the suit, so to speak. Slowly we were able to say, ‘Okay, we understand why you’d be angry,’ and all the rest of it.

“There is no magic bullet. It’s just grinding it out and trying to be decent.”

Carlisle’s Catholic community is tightly knit. The three men all attend the same church, which has a social club (read “bar”) and Denny and Merrick previously worked together at Newman Catholic School, a secondary whose pupils have been on a temporary site since the 2015 floods.

Cumbria is now home to Merrick, who had an itinerant childhood as an army kid and spent time in a boarding school in Kent. He loved school, and came to see education as a way to rise above his working-class roots.

If a kid wants to go and be a mechanic he should still know a bit of Shakespeare

Social mobility is a subject of much contemplation for the sometime RE teacher. After publishing a blog on its downsides last summer, Merrick was invited to share his thoughts on Radio 4’s Four Thought programme. He gave a moving speech that’s well worth a listen, in which he lamented the alienation of a world where “to be educated too often means not being like your mum or dad”.

He acknowledges the tension parents feel between wanting to open up opportunities for their children and keeping them close to home. As school leaders, “we want the children to experience as many different things as they can; things that they wouldn’t have had the chance to. What they then do with them is ultimately, as far as we’re concerned, a matter for them,” he concludes. “If a kid wants to go and be a mechanic he should still know a bit of Shakespeare.”

Merrick’s boss seems less troubled by the idea of education causing a brain drain. “This isn’t the barren wasteland that gets described sometimes,” says Wilkins. “It’s a lovely part of the world; people love to come here.

Why not get young people who are good enough to go away, really get upskilled and bring their skills and strengths back to Cumbria and regenerate it?”

The team is on a mission to enrich the curriculum across both schools, an endeavour doubtless boosted by the fact both deputies come from a secondary context. “We brought a lot of year 9 texts into year 6,” says Denny, citing Shakespeare and Charlotte Brontë.

But is Jane Eyre really accessible to 11-year-olds — and at that age wouldn’t an author like David Walliams be more appropriate? “I wonder if we’d ask that question of Eton Prep School or Cheltenham Ladies’ College,” Denny retorts. “Do we just assume those schools’ pupils could access it? Because if they can, I’d guess we would say our children are entitled to that same education.”

Just learning is a virtue in itself, and that’s okay

Not so long ago, they had kids performing Hamlet from the top of Carlisle Castle. “That’s my ultimate aim with the job,” he continues. “Seeing children learn, and how they are so enthusiastic and passionate about it, and trying to remove the idea that because they’re only 9-year-olds they can’t do it. Yes, they can! You know, before hormones kick in, if you give them the opportunity they will do absolutely anything.”

Merrick references the slogan “Knowledge is power”, used by a section of the charter school movement in the US and becoming increasingly popular in England. “I know that a few prominent schools use it as a slogan, but knowledge is also a virtue. Intellect is a gift from God. We are Catholic schools, and we believe there is a virtue in developing and growing and nourishing that intellect.

We don’t need to have a justification for children learning things that aren’t related to their CV or to their future career path. Just learning is a virtue in itself, and that’s fine; that’s okay.”