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Hi-tech school nets arts prize

A glance at a newspaper led to a school winning much-needed funding and winning an arts award. Diane Spencer reports

It is no surprise that Ossett city technology college has a whizz-bang computer department, but that it is also scooping up major awards for the arts is quite another matter.

The fortunes of the Wakefield school, which has now received a gold artsmark award from the Arts Council for England, turned when headteacher Phil Limbert read about a computer firm looking for a school to develop links with industry. The chief executive said he was expecting to work with an independent or grant-maintained school. "But I thought, why not us? So I rang him up."

This resulted in an intitial pound;100,000 deal and provided the basis for CTC status, leading to further funding.

When Mr Limbert moved from Holland Park comprehensive in west London to Ossett in 1994, the school was poorly resourced.

"The pound;500,000 extra has provided us with what a decent school should have had," he says.

Ossett was undersubscribed, but it has grown from 1,200 to 1,700 pupils and is now oversubscribed; 57 per cent of pupils now gain five A-C GCSE grades compared with 32 per cent in the mid-1990s.

Mr Limbert was able to divert some of the technology college cash to put computers into arts and music classes as well as for information technology. He believes that children should not begin to specialise at 11. This year more than 50 Year 11 students took exams in dance, music, drama or fine art.

"We didn't have a particularly strong arts or music side so we ploughed money into the arts. With quality teachers you get quality outcomes," he said.

Anne Henshaw was appointed as head of music in 1996. The school now has a 70-piece orchestra, various ensembles and choirs. Her department operates from a group of buildings known as the stable block - accurately, as the school is built around a former mill-owner's house.

The orchestra has to put its instruments away to let lunch begin in the hall, and there are still 12 mobile classrooms. "The right people matter more than facilities," says the head, while admitting he hopes a private finance deal can be secured.

To qualify for the award the school had to show that it did not just have a good record in music. But it could point to the efforts of John Havelock, head of art, Wendy Bell, head of drama, and Barbara Hothersall, head of dance, who have worked together to put on productions such as Oh What a Lovely War and Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and used their contacts to bring Opera North and the Phoenix Dance company from Leeds into the school.

The Artsmark award coincided with a performance by the orchestra at the National Festival of Music for Youth at London's South Bank.

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