Kings' Manor has made a glorious comeback as the first 'privatised'comprehensive. Warwick Mansell reports.
KING'S College must be doing something right. Braith Harris who, at 58, is one of its most experienced teachers, is in school today, despite having recently broken a rib falling out of bed.
Although in some pain, she cannot keep away, saying she has never had this much fun on the job in her whole 20 years of teaching.
This positive feeling seems to be wholly in keeping with the atmosphere among staff and pupils at the former Kings' Manor school in Guildford. It's just as well, as the school is under a searching spotlight as the country's first "privatised" comprehensive.
It was relaunched in September under the management of 3Es - the not-for-profit private arm of the country's first city technology college - Kingshurst in Solihull.
Two years ago, Kings' Manor school was on the verge of closure, in special measures and struggling to stop pupil numbers plummeting.
Anyone visiting King's College now is confronted with a very different picture. At the entrance, what could almost be a hotel foyer greets the visitor. The carpeted corridors are pristine, the pupils' artwork which decorates the walls is neatly framed. Silence reigns.
As first impressions go, it is mightily impressive. But Ms Harris, who transferred from Kings' Manor, also reports a "miraculous" upturn in the pupils' behaviour and aspirations.
Principal David Crossley says he's had to exclude only two pupils in the first year of the relaunched school. School inspectors have been bowled over by pupils' attitudes. Crucially, the intake is up from 40 first preferences last year to 120 for September.
So what is behind this apparent turnaround? 3Es' basic strategy has been to replicate, as far as possible, the way Kingshurst operates. The company changed the governing body and replaced around two-thirds of teachers at Kings' Manor, recruiting Mr Crossley from an international school in Brunei.
King's College operates on a system of "rolling" breaktimes and lunches which, Mr Crossley says, avoids pupils congregating in large groups. Thre are no bells. A "twilight" programme of after-school activities has been added to the timetable. A new school uniform was introduced. And all of the staff were sent on a two-day training programme before the school opened, with the aim of establishing a common approach to behaviour control.
Alongside this, King's Manor received pound;1.6 million for rebuilding work from Surrey County Council. It will also benefit from pound;1.7m in capital funding from the Government's Fresh Start programme.
Surrey wrote off Kings' Manor's budget deficit when it closed the old school. In return, 3Es agreed that Surrey would not have to contribute to King's College's running costs.
Sceptics might say that the school could have benefited just as much from a relaunch without the involvement of 3Es. It has also undoubtedly gained from an agreement between the other secondaries to take their fair share of excluded pupils. The under-subscribed Kings' Manor had previously been saddled with almost all of the town's difficult youngsters.
Even before 3Es' involvement, Kings' Manor had been taken off special measures, as inspectors had noted drastic improvements in teaching.
There seems a consensus, however, that the methods put in place at the new college are working. Something new needed to be done, above all, to convince parents and pupils of the worth of the school.
Even the National Union of Teachers, which was in dispute with 3Es at the time of the Kings' Manor closure, conceded that a radical new approach, complete with a major marketing drive, was needed for a school which had already been re-named once eight years ago in an effort to turn it around.
Assistant principal Nick Clay, who worked in the old school for 10 years, said 3Es had made a huge contribution, not least in improving pupils' self esteem. He said: "Working in a school in special measures is not a terribly motivating experience, for pupils or staff. Now all the kids know they are part of something special - part of a vibrant school that works.
"I am sure this is not the only way to turn around a school, but it is a way that has worked."