Academy finds change is a game of two halves

24th August 2012 at 01:00
The backing of a top independent school is no guarantee of success

The Manchester City FC scarf in the window of the principal's office at the Wellington Academy was hung up to goad a Manchester United-supporting visitor from the local authority. And striking parallels can be drawn between Andy Schofield's school and the team he follows.

Just as City fans endured decades of ridicule as their club sank to the lower leagues of English football, Castledown School - the academy's predecessor - was long derided as the worst secondary in Wiltshire.

And while City was propelled back into the big time by a multi-million-pound investment from a member of Abu Dhabi's royal family, Castledown found itself in the spotlight when, in 2009, it became the first sponsored academy to be named after its independent school backer, the illustrious Wellington College.

Since then, a spectacular new #163;32 million home for the academy has attracted jealous glances from heads around the country. And it has seen some good results (though perhaps not of Premier League-topping dimensions): the proportion of pupils leaving with five good GCSEs leapt from 43 to 98 per cent in just a year.

But in January came the first sign that the continuation of the seemingly miraculous transformation could not be taken for granted: the academy was rated "satisfactory" in its first full Ofsted inspection.

While acknowledging "rapid improvements in many aspects of the academy's work", inspectors were particularly concerned that achievement in maths was "significantly below the national average, because students are not making fast enough progress ... to make up for a legacy of underachievement".

Changes going on behind the scenes, the report said, were "still fragile and not happening fast enough to demonstrate sustained improvement".

The report was a timely reminder of the challenges the school still has to overcome and the fact that the backing of a top independent school is no guarantee of success. As one of the most high-profile sponsored academies, Mr Schofield (pictured above) acknowledges that satisfactory is not good enough for the Wellington Academy.

"Longer term change is not as easy to do," he says. "People do feel under pressure. A lot of people would be rubbing their hands together with glee if we failed. It's got to work; we've got to succeed. We want to get to 'good with outstanding features' as quickly as possible. We need to keep moving up."

Despite the socio-economic gulf between the intakes of Wellington College and the academy that bears its name, Mr Schofield is keen to take advantage of what he describes as a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to bridge the divide between the private and public sectors. And key to his vision is bringing the confidence of Wellington College's pupils to their academy peers.

"Their best ideas implement positive psychology and well-being," he says. "When I arrived you would look at the students here and they would be completely heads down, cowed."

But on recent visits to the college by academy pupils, Mr Schofield has noticed a shift in attitude. "They go to Wellington College and they like it. You can see them thinking, 'Those posh people are just the same as us. There's so much more we could do if we had that confidence.'"

Transplanting the independent sector ethos into a school where 40 per cent of pupils are from military families stationed at the nearby garrison has not been without challenges, and Mr Schofield's plan to launch an International Baccalaureate programme to drive up pupils' aspirations has not yet come to fruition.

Since it opened last year, interest in the boarding house on the school site has grown "slowly", Mr Schofield concedes, with just 15 of the 100 spaces occupied during 2011-12. "It's quite tough to keep all the balls in the air," he acknowledges.

And when the school's sixth form opened in 2009, just 35 of its 225 places were filled, although in 2012-13 it is expected to be full to capacity.

Wellington College plays a key role in steering the academy's ongoing improvement by providing five members of its governing body. One member of the college's teaching staff, Cressida Henderson, spends a day a week helping out at the academy. As well as occasional visits from the college's master, Anthony Seldon, other members of its leadership team attend meetings to assist with the academy's planning.

But rather than feeling under pressure, Mr Schofield insists he is given plenty of space to manage the academy as he sees fit. "From our point of view, it's really helpful," he says. "The commitment is still coherent; they still walk the talk. They are just coming in, taking stock of what their investment is doing."

An operating committee focuses on the nitty-gritty of day-to-day cooperation, including a recent joint production of Oliver! staged, significantly, at the academy. "Our theatre is much better than theirs," Mr Schofield says.

And the relevance of the play's symbolism is not lost on him. "We had Oliver; they had Fagin," he says.

"We can't change the world," Mr Schofield adds. "But we can change the lives of our students. They are brilliant; they just need to have their eyes opened to the rest of the world."

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