'A proper comprehensive'

17th September 2004 at 01:00
The head of Lambeth's glittering new pound;25m academy aims to do things very differently for children of all classes and abilities, reports Michael Shaw

The Lambeth Academy is on a surprisingly posh road for a school designed to tackle inner-city disadvantage. Step outside its gate and you face a pleasant walk up to Clapham Common past BMWs and rows of upmarket houses.

Pat Millichamp, its principal, notes with pride that some of "those million-pound jobs" are home to her pupils. Parents include an award-winning film producer, architects, journalists and a best-selling novelist.

But she is quick to point out that the pound;25 million academy attracts the average social mix of pupils in Lambeth, one of London's most challenging boroughs.

The 56-year-old spent evenings ringing door-bells on the nearby Notre Dame estate to make sure. "No child in the school lives more than a mile away," she said. "We are a proper community comprehensive."

The academy opened this month after more than four years of campaigning by Lambeth parents, fed up with a lack of local secondary places. More than 900 applied to be among the first 180 Year 7 pupils and the academy received tearful calls from parents whose children missed out.

The weight of expectations, the high-profile status of academies, and an impending visit by the Queen are just some of the pressures on Ms Millichamp.

She looks a younger, blonder version of the actress Patricia Routledge and describes herself as a "classic working-class girl". The daughter of a pastry cook and a builder, she grew up in Hornsey, north London. Her earliest memories include giving a lesson to her dolls and teddy bears. But she admits her decision to become a biology teacher was driven as much by a lack of other ideas than a desire to teach.

Most of her career has been spent in London schools, including the acclaimed Sir John Cass in Islington. But she has spent the past decade as head of Risca comprehensive, near Newport, in south Wales.

Her successes at the school included tackling a pound;125,000 budget deficit, a task which involved making tough staff cut-backs.

Ms Millichamp's no-nonsense manner impressed the Lambeth Academy's Christian sponsors, the United Learning Trust, as well as local parents.

Among them was John O'Farrell, author and Guardian columnist, now the academy's chair of governors.

"She wrote in her application that she had a 'commitment to the comprehensive ideal'," he said. "I thought that was a brave thing to say these days.

"There's nothing phoney about her. And what she's doing with the curriculum really is radical."

The academy, which eventually will have 1,250 pupils, specialises in languages and like all the teachers, Ms Millichamp has pledged to learn a language and must wear a yellow badge indicating her choice.

She has opted for Yoruba, which is spoken in Nigeria, and will be relying on pupils for help with phrases such as "Se d ad a ni?" ("How are you?") Even more inventive than the badges is the academy's timetable.

Teachers must spend at least five periods a week teaching a different subject, using only skills from their normal area of the curriculum. So maths teachers will be in art lessons explaining the mathematical principles behind Leonardo da Vinci's works, while in history technology teachers will explain the development of aircraft.

Ms Millichamp said that she was a troublesome pupil at her school, Hornsey girls', who often did not see the point of lessons. "I can remember thinking 'I can't do maths but I can do physics', which was stupid - if you can do physics you can do maths," she said.

"Here a child won't get stranded in a part of the curriculum they don't understand. What we are doing with children should all tie up."

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