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A private function

Surrey's answer to sink schools has been radical: private firms have been hired to turn them around but they remain very much under the LEA. Joe Clancy reports.

A Year 8 pupil wears a wide grin as he repetitively taps out the word "Sad, Sad, Sad" on his keyboard. Upper case 'S' and lower case 'a' and 'd', until it fills the whole screen. The teacher has no need to alert the school counsellor or call a psychologist. The boy is simply following her instructions. He is part of an enrichment class in which he has chosen to learn keyboard skills. This is simply a typing exercise.

Enrichment, two 50-minute lessons a week, is an important part of the curriculum at King's International College for Business and the Arts, in Camberley. Pupils can take part in activities, including extra sport, music and drama. They can learn to play chess, electric guitar, or follow the "Scoff" programme for budding Jamie Olivers. The scheme is just one of many innovative features that have made the school, after years of being chronically undersubscribed, a place where parents want their children to learn.

Formerly called France Hill, Kings International is one of three secondaries in Surrey that were on the slide but which were put into the hands of private companies to turn them around. However, they are not strictly speaking privatised because they remain within the framework of the authority.

Surrey's deputy director of education, Steve Clarke, says: "We don't normally go round privatising schools just for the sake of it, but these schools were in a desperate state, and we needed to come up with something quite radical and different.

"In Surrey, parents want their children to go to a good school and are prepared to go to great lengths for them to do so. They will travel any distance, move house, or pay for private education. If they sense that any school is deficient in quality they take one of these options, and then the school enters a spiral of decline from which it is difficult to break out."

Contracts for Kings International and Kings College in Guildford were given to 3Es, a company started after the successful privatisation of Kingshurst School in Solihull. Both contracts run for ten years: 3Es takes over the management of the schools, forms the majority on the board of governors and is fully accountable for the school's success or failure.

At the third school, Jubilee High in Addlestone, a foundation was established. Nord Anglia provides five of its eight members; the foundation, in turn, provides five of the 21 governors. Part of the company's role is to advise governors, acting as consultants in partnership with Surrey.

The companies hire staff for the three schools, organise refurbishment and the resources, and set the ethos, all in conjunction with the LEA.

All three headteachers agree that it was by leaving behind the factory age and entering the cyber age that radical new ways of teaching and learning have been made possible. In all three schools, the entrances to the buildings have been transformed into bright, vibrant and modern reception areas that now look more like the lobbies of smart hotels. Corridors and classrooms are carpeted, painted in lively colours, and modern materials such as glass bricks are used.

They are also canteens that have a look of Internet cafes, with bistro-style tables and chairs. Two of these have banks of computers in one corner so that pupils can surf the net after munching a nacho.

The capital costs of refurbishment have been about pound;1.5 million at each school. Steve Clarke explains that other routes were considered before bringing in private companies.

One option was to turn them into city academies. "Our costs were less than one-tenth of what they cost," he says. "That route relies on a huge capital project to get the attention of parents, but there is a limit to how many pound;20 millions you can find.

"The win for us is that it costs less per pupil now than it did when these schools were struggling.

"I think every authority in the country has a Kings Manor, and some are looking at what we are doing. Essex is thinking about following us and we have had visits from Hertfordshire, Kent and Wiltshire."

He uses a motoring analogy to describe the schools' transformation.

"They were the Skodas of education, for which it would take a lot more than just improving the model before people would be persuaded to buy it. We had to change fundamentals, and we thought: 'Why not have a private partner. Nobody has done this before - let's go for it.'

Before it became King's International in September 2001, France Hill attracted only about 120 pupils in Year 7 for its 210 available places. A year later, there were 212 applications. It has two high-performing secondary schools close by competing to attract students. Under its old name of France Hill it struggled to do so: its top-grade GCSE pass rate was 36 per cent while its two neighbours were scoring above 60 per cent.

However, within a year of its partnership with 3Es, there are now more applicants than places.

Headteacher Ann Cockerham says: "What we are about is providing three good schools in this area that are able to gain the confidence of local people and prove that the state sector has something really good to offer."

To achieve that aim it has become revolutionary in several ways. It is the first foundation school to be privately influenced, the first state school to take on international status, and it is the first school in the country with business as a declared specialism.

The school has adopted the 3Es model of longer lessons of 75 minutes and staggered breaks - both are 25 minutes - for lunch and brunch. It provides enrichment classes within the school day, and it offers the International Baccalaureate to sixth-formers, thus becoming the 1,000th school worldwide to run the IB diploma.

The school also offers intermediate GNVQ courses in information technology and science, with students having access to online learning. Every subject has an international dimension written into its scheme of work.

There is a flat management system, with no heads of department and no heads of year; instead, teachers negotiate a profile of responsibilities. They are paid according to their qualities and experience.

The cashless cyber-restaurant offers international dishes every day, which are paid for by swipe card. Mrs Cockerham says: "The atmosphere in the restaurant helps to support the ethos we want to establish. It is calm, social, and conducive to building up a feeling of co-operation and support.

"People looking around here will see a very modern, adult environment. That is what I love about this job - the opportunity to do things radically different. We almost purposely seek different ways of doing things for learners of the 21st century."

Valerie Bragg is chief executive of the 3Es federation and someone who has had a lot of influence on the way the company's two schools in Surrey have been reorganised. "Our model has been a catalyst for other schools in Surrey who have adopted some of our ideas," she says. "The fact that both our schools are now very popular with parents is a good indicator of the progress that has been made."

Twelve miles down the road at Jubilee High in Addlestone there has been a massive transformation in its first few weeks of existence under new management. When it opened its doors in September under Nord Anglia, 120 new pupils moved up from primary school. In 2001, when it was Abbeylands, just 85 new pupils joined. The same year, only 12 per cent of its pupils gained top-grade GCSEs. Attendance has began to show a dramatic improvement in the first few weeks. The school recorded a figure of 94.01 per cent in October, up from the a percentage in the eighties last year.

It too has introduced innovation to its curriculum, becoming one of the first schools in the country to offer a business and enterprise course in Years 7, 8 and 9.

"The school had lost the confidence of the local communities, and parents preferred to send their children to schools outside the neighbourhood," says the headteacher, Paul Suchley. "The challenge is to bring it up to full size against strong local competition."

Nord Anglia brings its experience in supporting struggling schools in Westminster. Four of the eight secondary schools were in challenging circumstances when the company began running services there three years ago; now there are none.

Jubilee has already established links with the independent St George's College in Weybridge: its sixth-formers work with Jubilee pupils on reading schemes. There are plans to link with the school on programmes for the gifted and talented. It also plans to open up adult learning facilities, in some cases alongside their children, particularly in ICT and business-related subjects, in an open-all-hours school as well as plans to widen its after-school and holiday activities.

Sue Gilbert, an English teacher, joined in September from another school in challenging circumstances. "It is a partnership of two approaches: the private and the state," she says. I think it is an excellent way forward."

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