Chafford Hundred, an ancient settlement mentioned in the Domesday Book, is today the site of Britain's most futuristic school. With its slate floor, pale stone walls and abundance of natural light, the entrance hits a civic note usually reserved for adult establishments. And this is no accident, as the architects designed this "neighbourhood learning centre" to serve not only children but the whole community.
The Chafford Hundred campus is a primary and secondary school for three to 16-year-olds, an adult education facility and a community centre all rolled into one compact, modern site. With a public library at its entrance, the building puts into practice current ideas about making schools the heart of the community - open outside school hours and to more people.
Originally the vision of Rafael Wilkins, then director of education at Thurrock unitary authority, the school was built partly to provide a focal point for residents of a huge new housing development of the same name outside the Essex town of Grays, close to the giant Lakeside shopping mall.
It can scarcely, as yet, be called a community. "There is no real cultural life here," says headteacher Alison Banks. "At weekends, people seem to drift in and out of retail and leisure centres. The idea was to have an education centre where people feel they belong."
Chafford Hundred campus cost pound;10.5 million, half of which was provided by the housing developers. The idea behind linking primary and secondary sectors is to weld the intimacy of small-school relationships to large-school economies of scale. With 210 primary places and 600 secondary, Chafford Hundred aims to be "one school financially and legally, but two schools educationally", says Alison Banks.
The primary and secondary schools share a reception desk, a staffroom, a large office and a resource area; catering staff cook first for the primary children then for the secondary, in a kitchen that lies between two dining areas. Access to the primary section from the secondary is by swipecard, for the security of younger pupils, who have their own entrance, playgrounds and smaller, child-friendly hall.
Educationally, the fusion is also starting to work. Secondary staff such as music teacher Peter Hurren have run sessions with primary children. "I was scared before I started," he says, "but as long as you treat them with respect, it doesn't matter what age they are." Primary and secondary pupils have also worked together in literacy and drama.
Before taking on Chafford Hundred, Alison Banks completed a fellowship at the Institute of Education's leadership centre in London, following headship at Beacon community college, East Sussex, and in Salford. "I'd always had ideas about how schools should be different," she says. "This was the opportunity to take them further."
Her ideas - "the future is small schools, less travelling, more use of IT and teaching assistants" - are all in evidence at Chafford Hundred. Some - weekly one-to-one mentoring sessions where children can discuss their learning for half an hour, for instance - have been straightforward and effective. Early results show considerable gains in achievement in Year 7, contrary to the national picture. (A gradual intake means the eldest children are still only Year 8.) At key stage 3, students spend two-thirds of their time with one teacher, with specialist input in PE, performing arts and technology. The school makes extensive use of teaching assistants and innovative ICT, and each secondary-age student has a laptop. The narrow catchment area means most children arrive on foot or bikes.
But the practicalities of marrying a primary and secondary school in one institution have been daunting. Stumbling blocks have included the attempt to run a joint governing body (prohibited by law), lack of flexibility in the budget (one school is not allowed to subsidise another), software licences, grievance procedures and utility bills. "There's nothing easy about it," says Alison Banks, 16 months after Chafford Hundred opened in September 2001. (She has stayed while the primary head has moved on, replaced by acting head Karen Lees.) "We're crossing obstacles all the time. The building is brilliant - I can't fault it. We just need the structures and systems in local and national authorities to make it work."
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