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Case study: Walsall academy

Walsall academy opened in September 2003, as one of the second group of academies. When we received our first batch of applications we were staggered by the response: we had 508 applicants for 168 places. And yet the school wasn't even built at the time; all we could offer was a building site and a vision. But clearly it was a vision that appealed. Our predecessor school, TP Riley, had a very small intake towards the end of its life. It suffered from poor building stock and had also been in special measures, although by the time it closed it was on the way up again.

Why was the new academy so popular? I think parents were attracted by the idea of a fresh start, but more important was the reputation of our joint sponsors, the Mercers' company, which already sponsors Thomas Telford school, one of the UK's leading city technology colleges, and Thomas Telford school itself. These are the kind of sponsors that inspire confidence. In this part of the West Midlands, everyone has heard of Thomas Telford and what it's achieved. I'd worked there for 12 years and was a deputy head.

I was put in post as head of Walsall four terms before it opened, working at TP Riley alongside the existing head. It gave me a valuable insight into the needs of its students, so by the time the academy opened we had a clear idea of what we wanted to achieve and how to go about it. People often say how lucky we are to have new buildings. It's true, but it's not the most important thing. It's like moving into a new house; if you don't look after it then it gets trashed pretty quickly. That's why our first priority was to establish the right attitude among students. We wanted respect and politeness at every level. I think we've achieved that now.

We haven't opted for a separate academy pay scale, so staff here receive the same basic salary as in other secondary schools. We do offer a few extras when it comes to performance-related pay, and we pay for cover during staff absences, which eases workload. But our real stamp of independence comes in the curriculum we offer.

At key stage 3 we follow the national curriculum, but when our first intake reaches key stage 4 in 2006, they will have the chance to mix and match between vocational and academic courses. In our sixth form, students already choose a combination of academic and vocational qualifications, all of which carry equal status.

Instead of having traditional lessons of 40 minutes or an hour, our timetable consists simply of a three-hour session in the morning, and a three-hour session in the afternoon. And the academic year is divided into 10 blocks of three to four weeks, so children can get into a topic, get assessed on it, and then move on.

A lot of this comes from the Thomas Telford model, but Walsall academy isn't a second Thomas Telford. It's a sister school, but it serves different people in different communities. I've brought some things with me and left others behind. What we share is an ethos and an attitude. When I first came to Walsall, before the academy opened, I detected a coldness from other schools. Because we were one of the first academies, no one knew what to expect. But once we were actually open, and people could have a look around, they no longer felt threatened.

The coldness has disappeared now. Of the 168 students we accepted in that first intake, 100 would have come to TP Riley anyway. Other heads say the academy has only taken a handful of students away from them. Many schools have chosen to work with us, and we do outreach work in both secondaries and primaries.

Getting an academy up and running is extremely demanding, but also exciting. When we were setting up, the DfES was making decisions for the first time, and so were we. Now we have many visitors and we're happy to give them the benefit of our experience. With 17 academies open there is a lot of knowledge to draw on, and as the number of academies grows, it should become quicker and easier to get new ones off the ground.

Jean Hickman is head of Walsall academy, Bloxwich, Walsall. She was talking to Steven Hastings

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