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Thomas Telford school, Telford, Shropshire
Schools are now free to form companies, make money and share it with others
Past the retail park and left at the roundabout lies one of the most profitable concerns in the new town of Telford, Shropshire. Compared with the garish superstores around it, Thomas Telford school's brick buildings resemble, appropriately enough, a corporate headquarters. Because as well as being the most successful state-funded school in England - famous for every one of its GCSE pupils getting five or more top grades for the past three years - Thomas Telford is also home to a multi-million pound IT business.
One of the first city technology colleges, Thomas Telford was founded in 1991 with financial backing from construction group Tarmac and the Mercer's Company charity, and has been run in a businesslike way ever since.
The school day starts at 8.30am and lessons can go on until 5.40pm. Other aspects of the organisation are unusual. Lessons last up to three hours, with 20 minutes for breakfast and 40 for lunch, so less time is wasted moving between classrooms. When pupils enter the sixth form, they wear a different kind of uniform - office-style clothes. All tutor groups are mixed-age, with two or three pupils from each year - from Year 7 up to Years 12 and 13. Teachers never have to invigilate (groups of mainly retired teachers are hired during exam season) and are paid if they have to cover for colleagues. A team of administrators helps with paperwork, leaving staff with more time to teach.
While this school has made a habit of turning its mixed ability intake into high achievers, it is more than just an exam factory. The corridors are lined with huge photographs of pupils receiving awards, performing in music or drama productions or posing in one of the sports teams that last year won 35 regional or national championships in football, hockey, netball, basketball, rugby, gymnastics, athletics and cricket. The trophy cabinets at Thomas Telford are dazzling.
But the school's biggest success, financially speaking, has taken place behind the scenes. In less than three years, Thomas Telford has sold its online courses (three in ICT and one in maths) to around 1,200 schools, netting a profit of around pound;6 million. The commercial masterstroke was to charge schools a licence fee rather than a one-off payment, enabling teaching materials in the fast-moving world of ICT to be annually updated but also ensuring a steady income to TTS Online, Thomas Telford's commercial arm.
Headteacher Sir Kevin Satchwell, knighted in 2001 for his services to education, makes no apologies for the school's businesslike approach. "The fact is that we are the top performing comprehensive school in England - that's our brand. Our brand is that we deliver high standards." (And if that makes him sound like a businessman and nothing else, note that he has his own tutor group and is coach to the Year 7 boys' football team.) Like many successful entrepreneurs, Sir Kevin has faced scepticism, if not outright opposition, to his business plan, hatched in the early days of the internet. After several years spent trying to sell the idea of online courses to local authorities, in 1997 he went straight to the schools themselves, phoning 40 local secondaries to see if they would be interested in trying out Thomas Telford's networked curriculum. Within a week, 39 had replied and, nine months later, 500 schools were on board.
This was the first cohort of Project 40 (so called because that was the number of terminals in the training centre). Every school that buys the courses has to come for five days of tutorials on how to teach them.
The money rolled in, but Thomas Telford's founding mission "to raise educational standards through effective practice and share it" still applied. "We couldn't use it on ourselves - it would be wrong to have a treasure chest for Thomas Telford," says Sir Kevin. So, in what might have been commercial suicide in any other sector, the enterprising school turned ethical business and began to help its competitors in the league tables.
A trust was set up to administer the money. To date, 46 schools in the West Midlands have been helped to apply for specialist status with grants of up to pound;50,000. Thomas Telford has also put pound;1.5 million towards the pound;17 million city academy due to open in Walsall this September and is the major sponsor of a second city academy planned for Sandwell. In its latest bout of educational philanthropy, 20 local primaries have been given grants to improve their ICT facilities.
Thomas Telford's enterprises benefited from its CTC status but, since the Education Act 2000, any school is now allowed to set up a company. Sir Kevin says they will need business acumen and confidence in their own abilities ("to share your learning materials with other schools is to bare your soul") if, as he hopes, others are to follow his example. "In 2020," he says, "we could have 20 schools doing what Thomas Telford is doing."
Ones to watch
Varndean school, Brighton Set up its own e-learning enterprise in 2001
Specialist schools Hundreds seeking business sponsors
Enterprise Insight CBI-backed scheme to encourage entrepreneurial pupils