The Conversation: Technology schools
Q: Thomas Telford School was one of the original city technology colleges (CTCs) with a mission to be innovative. You have been its head since its inception. How did you start building a school from scratch?
A: Our aim was to build a vision based upon the predicted influence of technology by around the turn of the century. At the same time, we had to be totally confident that we could deliver the highest possible educational standards.
The idea was to blend a range of traditional organisational values - for example, school uniform, longer working day, extra-curricular activities for everyone - with a developing online curriculum which could be accessed by everyone connected with the school.
Q: Looking back, how much of a risk were the new CTCs? They certainly had few supporters. Did you feel like a pioneer, a risk-taker, or were you always confident the new model would deliver results?
A: CTCs were a big risk politically and also a big threat educationally. If these new schools delivered higher educational standards than other all-ability schools - or, indeed, failed to deliver - the consequences would be profound.
If new ways of working could drive up standards, then inevitably, other schools would be under pressure to follow.
On the other hand, if the CTCs failed to deliver, the political pressure for closure would have been intense, as it was with so many of the Fresh Start Schools over the past decade.
However, CTCs are now among the best-performing schools in England and I am sure this was because of the freedoms we had as independent schools.
Q: What decisions and innovations have been most influential in your school's success?
A: The provision of premier teaching and support conditions for employees was very important: 80 per cent maximum teaching load, subsidised baby unit and nursery provision for employees' children, up to 10 days' professional training a year and performance-related pay, to name just a few.
The success of the school centred around establishing access to all the teaching and learning materials via the internet, and this became a key factor in its educational standards.
Three-hour lessons, with breaks for breakfast and lunch, became the norm for most subjects.
Providing parents with 10 reports a year (every three weeks) has kept them closely involved in helping teachers support the students.
Vocational education for all students, irrespective of academic ability, was provided, widening the breadth of education available.
Q: What was the impact of making your course materials available at a cost to other schools?
A: Interest grew rapidly in our online learning materials, and by 2002 more than 1,000 schools and around a million students were using the school's online courses.
The business arm of the school was created - Thomas Telford Online. Everything being taught by us was now available to schools all over the world. The level of interest was unprecedented.
Q: As CTCs convert to academies and we see a growing diversity in England's schools (trusts, federations, academies and so on), where do you think it leaves local authorities?
A: Providing the opportunity for diversity will naturally lead to more schools relishing the prospect of independence. This is not to destroy or alienate the involvement of local authorities in education but to provide a better service for the pupils, for whom we are responsible.
The main bone of contention is over who has greatest influence or control. Schools should be able to set their own agenda for progress without any overbearing influence from the local authority.
Local authorities should think less about retaining power and more about empowering those who can make a bigger difference. This allows schools to work together and the outcomes can often be remarkable. Local authorities simply have to work in a different way!
Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.