`Parents needn't be anxious that pupils will be guinea pigs'

10th October 2014 at 01:00
Headteacher sets out plans for Cambridge University primary

Let it never be said that James Biddulph is afraid of a challenge.

As if taking on a headship were not daunting enough, Mr Biddulph's first stint in the headteacher's chair involved overseeing the opening of a brand new primary school. And not just any school: he supervised the founding of the Hindu Avanti Court Primary in Essex, despite knowing little about Hinduism when he accepted the role.

"I swore to myself I'd never do it again," he said. But in January he will start work as the founding headteacher of another new primary. And this time around, the challenge promises to be even tougher. Mr Biddulph will be the first leader of what is destined to become one of the most high-profile primaries in the country: the University of Cambridge Primary School.

"I do feel the pressure of that," he told TES. "But, to be honest, I'm more excited about the possibilities. If you want to do something unusual, it comes with pressure."

The project is certainly unusual. The 630-place free school, due to open its doors in September 2015, will serve a community that does not yet exist and Mr Biddulph will manage a team that is yet to be appointed. The school will be at the heart of North West Cambridge, a pound;1 billion, 3,000-home development that is the biggest capital project in the university's illustrious 800-year history.

Through its close relationship with the University of Cambridge's Faculty of Education, the school will be a hub of training and research. It will host as many as 16 trainee teachers each year and will even have an on-site clinical professor of education. Eventually, it is expected to become a teaching school in its own right.

The school's ambition will be reflected in its futuristic circular design, with each glass-fronted classroom opening on to an outdoor courtyard for work and play. Fittingly for a Cambridge project, this has been dubbed "the cloister".

Academics have already had a significant impact on the school, helping to design everything from the structure of lunch breaks to the layout of classrooms. But Mr Biddulph is adamant that, in his school, pupils will be more important than professors.

"The school is not an experiment," he said. "I don't want parents to be anxious that pupils are going to be guinea pigs. This is trying to improve what schools do.

"Children will always be the heart. If any research or any teacher training impinges on their experience, we would reject that. Initially, my main priority is to ensure children come and are settled quickly and enjoy their education. It has to be about children, first of all."

Applications for places at the new school do not close until January, but there is unlikely to be any shortage of demand. The University of Birmingham School - the first secondary teaching school to be set up by a university - has been swamped by applications, with more than 2,000 parents expressing an interest in enrolling their child in time for next year's opening.

But university backing is no guarantee of academic success. When the UCL Academy opened in 2012, it was described as "the future of education" by former schools minister Lord Adonis. But in June it was placed in the "requires improvement" category by Ofsted, with inspectors concluding that students were not making expected progress and teaching quality was an area of concern.

In the same month, a "pre-warning notice" was issued by schools minister Lord Nash to the University of Chester Academies Trust, prompted by concerns about the performance of three of the chain's schools. And earlier this year, Nottingham University Samworth Academy received a similar notice after a drop in GCSE grades led to it being placed in special measures by Ofsted.

But, nevertheless, Mr Biddulph remained optimistic and told TES that he was keen to build strong relationships with existing schools in Cambridge.

James Biddulph CV

1995-98 BA (Hons) English literature and music, Durham University

2000-01 PGCE, University of Cambridge

2001-09 Teacher, Ranelagh Primary School, London

2003-05 MA music education, University of London's Institute of Education

2008-10 MEd educational research, University of Cambridge

2009 Deputy headteacher, Daubeney Primary School, London

2010-11 Deputy headteacher, Newport Primary School, London

2010-present PhD, University of Cambridge

2011-12 NPQH, National College for School Leadership

2012-14 Headteacher, Avanti Court Primary School, Essex

2015 Headteacher, University of Cambridge Primary School

When the best teach the rest

Schools rated outstanding by Ofsted are eligible to become teaching schools, which offer training and development to new and existing teachers. The Department for Education intends to have a network of 600 teaching schools by March 2016 and is aiming for "significant improvements in the quality of teaching, leadership and pupil attainment". The University of Cambridge Primary School and the University of Birmingham School, both due to open next year, will be the first university teaching schools.

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