High on an Essex hill, diggers and forklift trucks heave themselves over churned-up chalk and clay. The builders' boots are heavy with the stuff as they toil over a huge, half-finished building. Window openings look out over an industrial landscape. Steam rises from a nearby factory chimney. A winter-cold Thames flows past old oil refineries and a margarine factory on its way to Southend and the sea.
The river slips under the bridge that links the tangled motorways of Kent with those of Essex. It fills the docks at Tilbury, made famous in 1588 when a woman inspired her troops by having the heart and stomach of a man. Then, in 1989, an iron lady abolished the dock labour scheme and cast the area into depression.
But enough of the past. Welcome to modern Thurrock, a borough council born only two years ago. The docks are about to enjoy a renaissance thanks to shipping company Pamp;O and a pound;1 billion redevelopment scheme which should create 10,000 jobs.
And, come September, the locals should have something else to celebrate. When the diggers tuck in their shovels and trundle off into the sunset they will leave behind an elegant white building filled with light and learning. A "school of the future", no less.
When education minister Estelle Morris cut the first turf last July, she was excited. She said the school, or "neighbourhood learning centre", would be as radical as two comprehensives built in the Seventies - Countesthorpe in Leicestershire and Stantonbury in Milton Keynes (see box).
So what's going on? Well, a new town is being built on this hill in Thurrock. The challenge is to turn the 4,000 neat brick houses of Chafford Hundred into a "learning" community, and the school will be the key. Under its two headteachers, it will cater for 800 three to 16-year-olds, but also for 17 to 107-year-olds. It will aim to be at the cutting edge in terms of curriculum, IT, pupil support, staffing and staff development, and emphasis on research.
The building will be open all year round. Its three-storey glass atrium should feel like the foyer of a concert hall or theatre, luring people in to share a public library, cyber-cafe and sports facilities and helping them through links with health and social services. It will be run by a partnership of managers, including the heads and a business manager whose job it will be to raise money.
Thurrock is a small unitary authority, controlled by Labour - Tony Blair's only foothold in Essex. Educationally, it has struggled. Though now improving fast, the area has little tradition of university study. In 1999, only 37 per cent of students got five A*-C GCSEs, compared with a national average of 48 per cent. It has suffered from a "long-standing culture of under-achievement," according to Raphael Wilkins, Thurrock's director of education and a man with a vision.
Mr Wilkins wanted to reverse this trend and saw an opportunity through a partnership with the Chafford Hundred developers. He needed a secondary school, but had no money. They had money and wanted a high-quality development, which meant providing more than just roofs over people's heads. The developers - a partnership of Blue Circle, Pelham Homes and the Pearson group - agreed to donate a 17-acre site worth pound;6 million, and invest pound;5 million in the Chafford Hundred campus. Primary school, secondary school, public library and community facilities were to be built on a single site. That is until Raphael Wilkins suggested putting them in one building.
Like the Government, he was worried that children go backwards when they move to "big school". If secondary and primary were integrated in one building, surely there would be less chance of regression because there would have been no move.
Teachers would work "cross-phase", ensuring support for hesitant 12-year-olds and challenges for mature 11-year-olds who had outgrown their primary environment. The community aspects of the centre would also encourage parental involvement and support. It all adds up to several steps along the path toward a genuine learning society.
After the architects "had very kindly designed a building that could not be run as two separate institutions" with lots of shared facilities and corridors, Raphael Wilkins looked around to find the people to make his vision work. He knew the risk of "seeing a wonderful idea pulled apart and become something very traditional". But he was lucky. He found Alison Banks and Catherine Finn, who last year became joint headteachers of the Chafford Hundred campus.
The two get on - which is fortunate because they are going to be seeing a lot of each other. They not only embraced the all-age learning concept, but extended it, says Raphael Wilkins. "They decided to share everything and do everything on a joint and equal basis."
Based at Thurrock civic offices, they have relished the chance of a year to plan their new venture. They want to be innovators, not just in their primary-secondary integration but, for example, through their choice of a "competency" rather than subject-based curriculum; they'll tackle a child's bad time management or shaky problem-solving skills rather than his or her inability to remember quite when Elizabeth I made that speech.
One of their early decisions was to deputise for each other. So Alison, who is secondary head, is also the primary deputy, and vice versa. This emphasises the integrated ethos and, more prosaically, should stop staff playing them off against each other.
They are not just working closely with each other, but with the managers of the other services in their building. This distinguishes Chafford Hundred from England's village and community colleges, which also aim to draw local people together. Alison Banks should know; the 51-year-old Lancastrian's previous job was running Beacon community college in East Sussex. There, "the principal ran everything - the youth service, adult education and so on". But she says this is unlike anything she has experienced before. "It is an alliance and requires a management structure where people have to be open, and prepared to discuss and share. Joined-up schemes are brilliant ideas, but to make it happen on the ground you have to rewrite the rules."
Legally, for example, Chafford Hundred is two schools with separate budgets and separate governing bodies, but Alison Banks and Catherine Finn have combined the finances to avoid a "bureaucratic nightmare" and to even out the inequities of primary-secondary funding. (A quiet word in the relevant ear also sorted out the disparity in their salaries.) Integration is everywhere. The secondary wing has a shared staffroom and the primary wing has a shared administrative block. "It ensures that people use us as a campus and not two separate schools. And there is no reason why secondary staff can't do primary playground duty and vice versa, which again builds up links," says Catherine Finn. She adds that they have become so hooked on the idea of an integrated future that they "do a bit of a double-take when people refer to two schools".
Chafford Hundred is the second headship for the 37-year-old from Yorkshire. Setting up the campus, she says, "has been very exciting although I never had any grey hairs until now. I have learned so much about secondary and Alison has learned so much about primary, which is wonderful." They have also learned a lot about architecture, having been involved in discussions with designers and builders.
"Everyone has been great," says Ms Finn. "We have been listened to and have been around from early enough in the project to change some things we didn't like." For example, coat hooks were in the wrong place, the nursery toilets were the wrong size and the manual heating controls needed guards.
All this learning chimes with their plans for the campus. "If we are advocating learning we must model it in our own lives. Nobody is going to be appointed to the staff who is not committed to being a learner," says Raphael Wilkins. If his vision becomes reality, he and the two headteachers will have helped local people "make the connection between learning and life - when education becomes self-sustaining and linked with active citizenship, with empowerment, with democracy. We have to find every way of nurturing that - learning to live, not learning just to pass exams" (although he reckons they'll be pretty good at that as well).
Made for sharing
One day, if they ever have time, Alison Banks and Catherine Finn might like to chat with Lesley King and John Wilkins, co-directors of Stantonbury Campus in Milton Keynes. Like Chafford, Stantonbury was built to serve a new town. Originally planned as three schools with shared central and community facilities, Stantonbury opened as one in 1974, evolved into two in 1978 and is now essentially merged into one 2,600-pupil secondary. The co-directorships are a result of this history.
Stantonbury has no primary school, but John Wilkins and Lesley King, both in their mid-50s, run a leisure centre, a theatre and an adult education programme in addition to the school. John says joint rule has worked for them, but when they retire they will be replaced with a conventional principal and deputy to avoid the risk of appointing two people who do not get on. Joint heads, he says, "must share the same aims and vision for the school, although they do not have to be the same type of person - in fact there are advantages to having complementary skills".
He recommends sharing an office. "You need to have a constant dialogue. We do it organically because we sit next to each other." To put it another way, eavesdropping can be useful.