How do you re-write an entire island's approach to education? On the Isle of Sheppey, it is by building a school that could soon become the biggest in England.
After four years of wrangling, an academy is to open this September on the island, which lies just off the north coast of Kent.
It will replace three middle schools and an ailing high school, becoming the island's sole provider of secondary education. Costing pound;54 million - twice the cost of an average new-build academy - it will cater for at least 2,500 pupils. If it swells to 3,000, it will eclipse England's current largest school, Stantonbury Campus in Milton Keynes, by approximately 250 pupils.
"Most academies replace one or two schools. We're replacing four and moving from a three to a two-tier system in the process," says Paul Mortimer, principal designate of the academy (pictured left). "It'll be three times the size of your average high school."
Change is well overdue, he adds. "It has to be different because everything else has failed."
To date, many of those pupils who have the academic results, or the money, leave the island for their secondary education.
The only post-14 school on Sheppey is an ex-secondary modern, Minster College, which was placed in special measures in 2003. Despite a marked improvement, it remains a national challenge school, with 29 per cent gaining five good GCSEs, including English and maths.
"Whatever the actual situation is, the islanders think the college is failing," says Dr Mortimer. The crumbling 50-year-old building certainly does nothing to raise the spirits; it looks sad, tired and desperately in need of a makeover.
This image is confirmed by some local residents. Maurice Smith, former chief inspector of schools at Ofsted, carried out an independent review of education on the island in 2007. One resident who spoke to him about Minster College said: "This site, building, school, has failed generations of islanders. It is too badly damaged to be revived."
But the prospect of a super-sized academy did not thrill the islanders either. For starters, they did not want their children to get lost in a goliath institution. Mr Smith agreed with them.
Kent County Council had suggested putting the giant academy on a single site. But Mr Smith wanted two self-contained ones.
The most successful secondary schools are those with 1,000 to 1,500 pupils, evidence from Ofsted suggests, so the new 11 to 19 academy will comply with that. It will accommodate 1,000 pupils on the Cheyne Middle School site in Sheerness and 1,500 pupils on the Minster College site, two and a half miles away.
"It gives parents a choice, which is what they wanted," says Dr Mortimer. "Those who live in Sheerness will be able to walk to school for the first time, instead of trekking across the island."
But it is a strange sort of choice. "There will be no grounds for parental appeals if they don't get their first choice because we're all part of the same academy," says Dr Mortimer. "And we will have to use banding to ensure that each site gets a similar distribution of pupils with special needs."
However, the single academy could be beneficial in other ways. Even if one site prospers to the detriment of its neighbour - something grammar-rich Kent has been criticised for in the past - the release of just one set of exam results will make comparisons between the two less likely - from a league table perspective at least.
Fighting ingrained negativity and generational under-achievement will be another challenge, confirms Dr Mortimer, but he insists that innovation, change - and a perception of change - will help win hearts and minds.
To this end, the academy will be big enough to provide top-of-the-range opportunities, including the new diplomas; but small enough to meet pupils' needs. It will be split into five schools, or "family units", with two on one site and three on the other.
Each mini school will consist of 500 pupils and be responsible for 30 per cent of their learning, which will take place in mixed-age groups and will include literacy, numeracy and pastoral care, as well as thematically- taught humanity subjects.
The remaining 70 per cent of learning will be in shared practical learning spaces within each site, most probably in the form of two three-hour lessons.
The sites will be self-contained, although there will be some cross-over when pupils need to use the state-of-the-art sport or theatre resources, or access specialist diplomas.
Solutions like this are growing in popularity, according to Jane Thomas from Human Scale Education, a charity that promotes small-scale learning. "Breaking large schools into user-friendly units is a model more and more big comprehensives are turning to," she says. "Pupils can't relate to 1,000 other people, but a unit of up to 400 pupils can give them a firm rooting in a place."
B ut she adds that leadership can be tricky, especially if different sites or schools develop their own identity or move in different directions.
Dr Mortimer believes he has this covered. His role will be to unify all four of the predecessor schools before creating a new distinct academy culture and ethos.
He will need to work and communicate closely with both executive heads - one per site - plus the five headteachers for each of the schools. And they don't come cheap. The combined salary of the nine-strong senior team (including a financial director) is approximately pound;800,000 per year, plus performance-related bonuses worth up to 15 per cent of their salaries. The wages are consistent with other academies, Dr Mortimer argues, especially as the academy is just 40-odd miles from expensive London prices.
The unique demands of the job need to be financially recognised as well. There will be longer hours, for instance. The senior management team (SMT) have agreed to sign out of the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document so they can work up to 15 days more than the stipulated 195 working days a year.
"It's a lean team, so they'll have to work hard," Dr Mortimer says. "For a school of 3,000, our SMT is half what other schools would have. We're not having any deputies or assistant heads, and the money saved from that will feed back into teachers' salaries."
Extra hours will be necessary if the academy is to play around with the school timetable as it proposes. If it is to swell to 3,000 pupils, the academy could re-use the same space without any capital expenditure by allowing different pupils to come to school at different times of the day or year. The recurrent funding per pupil would then pay the salaries of the extra staff required.
An "open all hours" approach to learning will offer teachers more flexibility as well. Most staff will remain committed to the traditional school day, but others may choose to make up their hours earlier or later, during the weekends, term time or holidays.
Pupils could be taught en masse in university-style lecture halls in the larger learning areas, or in small mixed-aged groups in the smaller family units.
Dulwich College, a private boys' school in south London and the academy's lead sponsor, will also play a role. Teacher and pupil exchanges will include senior Dulwich pupils helping the Sheppey sixth formers with interview preparation for Oxbridge and other universities. "Many of our young people never leave the island," says Dr Mortimer. "The link with Dulwich College will help to raise aspirations."
It will take more than networking to break the island's historic educational woes. Sheppey has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the county and many children are from single-parent families. But Dr Mortimer is adamant: "It's going to be a wonderful success," he says. "We can't afford to fail."
ISLE OF SHEPPEY ACADEMY IN NUMBERS
- pound;54 million: Cost of the new buildings
- 3,000: Maximum number of pupils
- 500: Number of pupils in each of the five schools
- pound;800,000: Annual combined wage of nine-person senior team, excluding performance-related bonuses
- 225: Number of working days per year the principal will be expected to work - 30 days more than the standard limit of 195 working days for teachers. Other senior members of staff will work up to 210 days a year
- 500: The number of staff who will join the academy from other Sheppey schools
- 2012: Approximate date the new academy buildings will be completed.