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A helping hand

The school that bears the name of Thomas Telford, famous for a host of engineering feats, is building bridges of its own: supporting good practice in less fortunate schools. Gerald Haigh reports

The arrival of the city technology college - in the local authority but not of it - has inevitably made waves. Negative feelings have often been provoked by fears that able or well motivated pupils would be creamed off.

Or that national educational resources were being concentrated in an unproven hope of wider benefits for schools at large.

There was real resentment in some quarters, enough to make some authorities resolve to have nothing to do with any that were parachuted into their patches. The writer of a letter to The TES in December 2000 summed up this scepticism by congratulating Thomas Telford on its superb exam results, but finished by writing: "So please claim your rightful success and glory, but don't claim you are a comprehensive."

The city technology colleges even look different. Visitors entering one of these purpose built colleges - Brooke Weston at Corby or Thomas Telford in the town of that name - will find something akin to the headquarters of a financial institution, with reception staff in corporate dress.

Not all the doubts have gone away. It is also true to say, though, that they've often been pushed into the background by the determination of everyone involved to translate the original vision into a practical, diplomatic and professional working arrangement.

That certainly seems to be the way it has gone in Telford, where on the face of it, Thomas Telford, a purpose-built, high-achieving school - 100 per cent top-grade GCSEs in each of the last three years - sits alongside a group of neighbourhood comprehensives some of which are plainly working in difficult circumstances.

From the start the head, Sir Kevin Satchwell, has been clear that a CTC's job is "to raise educational standards through effective practice, and then to share it". He feels that the sharing part of that took some time to take off; not all the neighbouring authorities were receptive to his overtures.

This changed, he explains, when Telford amp; Wrekin was created in 1998. The first chief executive, the late David Hutchison, who died in post in 1999, expressed his support for co-operation "There's been a change in attitude away from divisiveness in education.

There are lots of initiatives now: independent and state school partnerships, education action zones, the whole idea of a family of schools.

"What we're doing hereis set against that backdrop."

So, over the last couple of years, Thomas Telford has been involved in partnership schemes with other schools. The first links were made with primaries. There is a long list that includes having key stage two children in for booster maths courses, and providing schools with ICT hardware, from complete computer suites to single pieces of hardware.

St Leonard's infant school in Dawley, for example, has had a new electronic whiteboard, together with training in its use for its teaching assistants.

"We're a small school in a socio-economically depressed area," says, the head, Lorraine Campbell. "We couldn't have done it ourselves. Now we can move everything on." Some of these schools are linked to the Thomas Telford computer network, enabling them to use the CTC's curriculum software.

More recently, there have been links with other secondaries - notably in supporting three Telford schools, to the tune of pound;25,000 each, in their applications for specialist school status. And on the curriculum front, in at least one case children and their teachers from a school that's been working to improve have come to Thomas Telford for a day or so each week.

"Thomas Telford helped us to develop some areas of the curriculum that we would have found difficulty with," says Malcolm Boulter, former head of Sutherland School, now working with the Telford amp; Wrekin education action zone.

"I think they have a lot of expertise in curriculum development and approaches to teaching and learning that we can learn from."

The CTC clearly spends a lot of money on outreach work. A list of projects in its own borough alone adds up to several hundred thousand pounds committed over the next three or four years. This is just a part of the work that the school does with six local authorities across the region, to the tune, Sir Kevin estimates, of about pound;4million.

Much of this is made possible by the school's entrepreneurial activities.

It famously sells its online GNVQ courses across much of the UK, for example - making millions in the process.

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