Primary pioneers power next phase of academy crusade

24th September 2010 at 01:00
This month the first non-secondary schools become academies. All are conscious of pioneering a controversial policy. They range from a small Cornish school where the head has teaching responsibilities to a large London primary which has plans to open its own secondary boarding school. Helen Ward asks the heads why they went first and what they plan to do next

'It's absurd to think we have a one-tier system'.

Jonathan Bishop, Broadclyst Primary, Exeter, Devon

Number of pupils: 400

Percentage FSM: 10

Percentage SEN: 8.6 with statements

USP: Enthusiastic embracer of technology

Jonathan Bishop is a man who is not afraid of being first. On his first day in his first headship, he opened one of the first primary academy schools, Broadclyst, near Exeter. He was previously its deputy head and has worked on the conversion since January.

He said: "Academies are a key plank of the new Government's policy. To seize the opportunity to get the freedoms that come with that, to be able to continue to strive to deliver an outstanding environment ... well I don't understand why anyone would not want to do it."

Mr Bishop is now reviewing all services which were once provided by Devon County Council - the payroll has already been moved to a new provider.

But he claims that the school will not be isolated from the wider community. He said: "People talk about a two-tier system, but a two-tier system exists anyway.

"The idea we have a one-tier system is absurd. Some schools are highly sought after, some schools with issues are where people end up because they can't get into other schools.

"Saying academies are divisive is ignoring what is there today. We've always worked successfully and collaboratively with schools around the world and working with other schools is what we will continue to do."

Broadclyst Primary, which has not changed its name, has a reputation as an early adopter of new technology. It has a Nasa-style computer suite with cinema-style projection screens, computers for all pupils and a planetarium.

Its website welcomes visitors to "The Future of Education".

Greg Martin, Durand Primary, Stockwell, London

Number of pupils: 930 (including nursery)

Percentage FSM: 52

Percentage SEN: 26

USP: Has its own sports complex and plans to open a boarding school for secondary-age pupils in Sussex

Durand primary is not like other primary schools.

It is more than a school. It also has a gym, swimming pool and flats on its inner south London site. The business which runs these was developed by Greg Martin, the former headteacher and now the school's executive head.

The profits from this business go back into the school, helping to pay for cuts in class sizes and more recently to advance plans to set up a boarding school for secondary age pupils in Sussex.

Mr Martin is one of the country's best paid school leaders, earning #163;85,000 in 2008 for running the business on top of his #163;70,000 salary.

With the new freedom that academy status brings, he plans to look at and consult on the overall structure of the curriculum, for example, the timing of the school day, lesson structure and timetabling.

In a statement to The TES, Mr Martin said: "Academy status does give us greater freedom to deliver an even more bespoke education, tailoring it to the needs of our specific intake.

"We look forward to being able to give time and space in the curriculum back to subjects like sport and music, the importance of which have been lost over recent years.

"As we continue to develop our plans to open a secondary school and become an all-age academy we will reassess the structure of the school day, the delivery and focus of the curriculum and, in consultation, shape this to be the most rounded and effective it can be."

From clear vision to action

Warren Harrison, Premier Academy (formerly Eaton Mill Foundation Primary), Bletchley, Milton Keynes

Number of pupils: 400 and 120 in private day nursery on site

Percentage FSM: 36

Percentage SEN: 36

USP: A school with ambitious expansion plans

"The change of name reflects our wider remit," said Warren Harrison, head of the Premier Academy. "Already 70 per cent of pupils come from out of our catchment area.

"We have consulted with the local authority about expanding from 420 to 630 and increasing the nursery from 122 to 200. That is something that drives me - having 800 children receiving an outstanding education."

Mr Harrison estimates academy status will bring an extra #163;187,000, although some of that will be used to pay for services currently provided by Milton Keynes council.

As well as a new name, there is a new uniform and a new member of staff - a former assistant social worker, who is now the school's safeguarding and well-being officer. Mr Harrison hopes to employ two or three more teachers to cut class sizes.

He is also considering cutting the summer holiday and lengthening half-terms, something he thinks will be popular with parents keen to avoid the peak prices charged by travel agents during standard school holidays. He said: "The role of a good local authority is to provide a clear vision and the role of institutions is to turn that into action. Micromanagement is not the function of local government."

Thinking outside the box

Patricia Sowter, Cuckoo Hall Academy (formerly Cuckoo Hall Primary), Edmonton, Enfield

Number of pupils: 730 (including nursery)

Percentage FSMs: 39

Percentage SEN: 35

USP: Visited by Michael Gove

Cuckoo Hall Primary was the venue for Michael Gove's first official school visit as Education Secretary.

Headteacher Patricia Sowter, a strong supporter of expanding the academy scheme, is impatient with critics who say the new wave of academy schools are just havens for the sharp-elbowed middle class.

She said: "We already had quite a bit of autonomy in terms of what services we obtained from outside providers and the way in which we run the governing body. But we are a school which has our challenges in an area with significant challenges and we do extremely well because we think outside the box.

"We're not going to make any significant changes. We are already very innovative as a school, but we are expanding and will end up with 1,000 children, so I am keen to develop my middle leaders. Being an academy gives me more funding for training, development and non-contact time for senior teachers."

Moving up from bottle green to purple.

Lesley Grace, Seaton Primary (formerly Seaton Infants) Workington, Cumbria

Number of pupils: 200

Percentage FSM: less than 10%

Percentage SEN: low

USP: The first infant school to become an academy. "One of the very best schools, not just in Cumbria but in the whole of England" - Ofsted

It is less than a year since Seaton was cut off from the outside world by the collapse of two bridges during unprecedented flooding in Cumbria.

Lesley Grace, headteacher of Seaton Infants School, said that the experience helped reinforce the village's sense of community and purpose - with most parents having to make a 16-mile trip via the next bridge in order to get to and from work just two miles away and staff doing the opposite journey.

The school reopened this term as Seaton Academy, with a new uniform (from bottle green to purple), new name and new logo, but Mrs Grace said the new start will mean less disruption in the long term.

"Much of what we do from day to day will not change," she said. "The changes will only happen where we believe it will improve our children's learning, so we won't have to respond to national ideas or national strategies, we can be totally focused on our age group and our community. For example, we can target resources to employ specialist staff, such as speech and language therapists or reading intervention specialists."

Mrs Grace estimates that her school will receive about #163;80,000 to #163;90,000 more a year, although she is not expecting academy status to provide a magic shield against the expected public service cuts.

She said: "We are aware that funding is not going to be as generous for anybody in future.

'Horses for courses' in Cornwall

Paul Gazzard, St Buryan (formerly St Buryan Primary), Penzance, Cornwall

Number of pupils: 120

Percentage FSM: less than 10

Percentage SEN: less than 10

USP: Small school with big ideas

Academy status has already led to smaller class sizes at St Buryan's. which has 120 pupils, celebrated its centenary this year and has mixed-age classes.

Paul Gazzard, headteacher for 22 years, said the money that came with academy status has paid for an extra teacher, bringing the average class size down to 18. "We would have had a class of 36 Year 5 and Year 6 children together, but this means we have an extra teacher and Year 5 and Year 6 have been split into their respective year groups."

Changing status did not faze Mr Gazzard; he's been through the process of local management for schools, grant maintained status, and then foundation status.

He said: "It's horses for courses. If schools are totally happy as they are, then that is the ideal situation. We looked at it not as a way of escaping, but as a way to move on. There will be cuts in the budget of academies, but if we get 100 per cent of budget we have far more in control of what we do with that money." l Westlands Primary, formerly Woodgrove Primary, in Sittingbourne, Kent, was also granted academy status, but as it was rated "satisfactory" by Ofsted at its last inspection it did not become an academy in its own right. It was federated with Westlands, an outstanding secondary, in the summer term.

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