The neglected Merseyside suburb that became a new-build beacon
Knowsley on a wet, late autumn afternoon can be a bleak place. Best known for its safari park and stately home, the Liverpool suburb is an idiosyncratic mix of urban decay and royal golf courses, and according to government GCSE league tables, it is officially the bottom of the pile.
Barely more than a third (33 per cent) of pupils in the Merseyside borough achieve the Government's target of five A*-C grades, including English and maths.
But, as is so often, the figures do not tell the whole story. Formed in the great local authority reshuffle in the mid-1970s, Knowsley suffers as so many like it for being on the periphery of a major city.
But as Liverpool played the role as the country's poorest son, Knowsley was equally affected by deprivation and neglect.
Even as money in its billions was poured into the regeneration of Liverpool's city centre thanks to private investment and the huge cash bonanza that accompanied the European Capital of Culture, the city's suburbs saw little of the good times.
But vast swathes of Liverpool's outskirts still sit bereft of investment and direction. Whole housing estates stand vacant, while roads such as Edge Lane, which feeds into Knowsley, are lined by boarded-up council houses.
This is the backdrop for Knowsley's startlingly poor statistics and it explains why it was one of the first local authorities to be handed cash from Building Schools for the Future. The borough received more than #163;160 million from the Department for Children, Schools and Families as part of the first wave of BSF in a bid by the Government to "bring England's schools into the 21st century".
It is now officially the first to have rebuilt every secondary school within its boundaries. Part of Knowsley's plan was to improve the schools to ensure it keeps its young people in them. One of the main reasons for its poor GCSE results is the way it loses young people like a leaking tap to schools around the area in neighbouring Liverpool and Sefton.
Like the majority of local authorities in the first wave of the school rebuilding programme, Knowsley's schools were the depressing 1950s and 1960s blocks, crammed with asbestos and so much glass that they would act like a chiller cabinet in the winter and a green house in the summer.
But the region's 11 secondary schools have now been replaced by seven multi-million pound "centres for learning", offering state-of-the-art facilities. There are no secondaries in Knowsley any more.
On first appearance, the learning centres are uninspiring monolithic boxes, dropped onto the nearest field. They look more like warehouses than schools. But that feeling drifts away once inside. Each is designed to the same template with small but identifiable nuances to give them their own character. One of the most striking features common throughout is the yawning, triple-height space that greets visitors as they enter. Filled with natural light, the space is flexible and acts as cafeteria, assembly hall and performance area.
All the work areas are flexible and a classroom can be opened up or contained to suit the teacher's needs.
These are not schools, but mini universities. At Halewood Centre for Learning, for 11-18 year olds, the Year 7 pupils' area is next to the sixth form common room so the older children can keep an eye on them.
The spaces are shared but not cluttered and there is a transient but calm atmosphere; something that headteacher Ann Behan says has been carried through to the outside environment.
"Before the new building our pupils used to go out at lunchtime and local residents would avoid going to the shops because there were so many kids and we often received complaints," she said. "But now more than 90 per cent of our kids eat at school - but we are being told by the same people that even after school the children seem calmer."
It is only when the local authority tries to explain the rationale behind its design that things become confusing. Knowsley's director of children's services, Damien Allen, speaks an educationist's language.
But for all his talk of making the schools hubs for shared services such as adult learning as well as health and social services, and for creating the schools as a manifestation of the local authorities' plans for a "project-based curriculum", the headteachers and their teachers seem content simply to get on with the job.
As the TES is being guided around Halewood, inside the staffroom - which is always open to pupils - the teachers are marking onto their whiteboard what they need to do to break through the Government's GCSE "floor target" - five A*-C grades in five subjects, including English and maths. It seems the antithesis to the local authority's more radical "learning solutions".
But the facilities in each building are jaw-dropping and it means the schools have more of the children's time during the day. And once the academic day is over, the quality of the after-school clubs is so high - music, cooking, football or dance - that they run at full capacity.
And this is vital. Many of the children receive free school meals and their home lives are what politicians and educationists like to describe as "challenging". What they mean is that their lives at home are hard and sometimes cruel. Providing these facilities ensures these children have a place to be.
But as Knowsley wraps up its building projects and enjoys the prospect of working with the best buildings government money can buy, many other local authorities hoping to be in the same position may well be wringing their hands.
Despite promises from the Government that BSF will continue, their reassurances are sounding increasingly hollow. The national deficit is such that few onlookers really believe the country can continue with the ambitious #163;55 billion project. And the prospects of it being maintained in its current, lavish guise look bleaker still should the Conservatives gain office.
The great school rebuilding experiment and its impressive array of schools could be coming to an end. But bend your ear towards Knowsley and you may just hear a quiet sigh of relief that they got their cash before it was too late.
BSF: AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
Last month, The TES reported a spat between the Conservatives and the Government about likely cuts to the BSF programme after the general election.
The Tories regard the huge capital expenditure programme as ripe for cuts while Labour - or at least Schools Secretary Ed Balls - is keen to be seen to continue with the vast capital investment project.
But the Conservatives have demanded the the Government "come clean" over how plans to reduce capital funding by half from 2014, as outlined in the Budget last April, will affect schools. The Tories say they do not plan to abandon BSF, but some backbenchers have criticised Labour's "palaces of learning", and shadow schools secretary Michael Gove has repeatedly stated the importance of investing in teachers as a priority over school buildings.
The BCSE, which is running the Great Schools Campaign and is a champion of good school design, believes any government, regardless of its hue, could improve the school fabric at a fraction of the current cost. Chief executive Ty Goddard said: "This massive school investment does not have to come with waste, duplication or making people jump through hoops. Let's remember the impact - if we get the school building programme right, we can transform the educational experience of our children and improve support for teachers, and that should be the goal."