Original paper headline: Where applied learning is everybody's business
The train journey to Ashfield School, through the heart of what only 25 years ago was one of the country's biggest industries, graphically illustrates the challenges the Nottinghamshire comprehensive faces.
Shirebrook, Creswell, Whitwell - now just names of stations on the Robin Hood railway line - were once collieries that formed the backbone of entire local economies.
Kirkby-in-Ashfield was another major centre in the Nottinghamshire coalfield, with three mines of its own that all closed at the same time, in the mid-1980s.
There has been some regeneration. Today, instead of terraced housing and pitheads, the train passes new private estates, slagheaps covered with lush green grass, and light industry. But local manufacturing jobs have gone and the town remains among the 10 per cent most deprived areas of the country.
Its schools must prepare young people for a new world without certainties, where qualifications are more important than ever, and call centres and service industries have become the new mines and factories.
Ashfield School is proving itself more than up to the task. This vast 2,600-pupil secondary already records academic GCSEresults that match national averages and is now blazing a trail with its innovative approach to vocational education.
Its curriculum, rated outstanding by Ofsted, ensures that every pupil in key stage 4 takes at least one course that gives them a real taste of the world of work.
Applied learning for everybody
"We don't buy into this notion that there is one route for the totally academic student and another for the rest," deputy head Martin Davies, explains. "We believe that applied learning is for everybody."
And it is not just this universalised approach that makes the school stand out. Ashfield is different because the pupils are not taught by teachers, but trained by professional staff who work in the relevant industry.
Pupils do not receive their vocational education in classrooms or college lecture theatres but in a range of real workplaces including a fashion studio, restaurant, nursery and RAC training centre. Most impressive of all, they do not have to leave the school campus to do so - it is all on site.
The award-winning Ashfield Skills Centre is a pound;7 million business park with a difference. The firms that move into the new industrial units and workshops behind the main 1950s building do not pay the school rent but instead agree to train its pupils.
A few other schools have introduced similar provision, but none with the breadth of Ashfield, which includes construction, textiles, car maintenance, catering and hospitality, childcare, plumbing, health and beauty and ICT.
Ofsted inspectors who visited late last year wrote: "It is now offering students, particularly KS4 and the sixth form, an outstanding curriculum designed for the 21st century, providing an excellent opportunity to learn with work-based experience."
In other words, Ashfield School, acting entirely on its own entrepreneurial initiative, has managed to achieve what successive British governments have abjectly failed to provide since 1944 - genuine parity between academic and vocational education.
This is at a school that has traditionally favoured the academic route. Until recently, conventional GCSEs were the only KS4 qualifications offered by Ashfield, which had never opted for the quick league-table fix of GNVQs. But in 2007, the school decided to move into vocational education.
Mr Davies explains: "If we were going to do it, we were going to do it in a different way. We didn't want teachers in front of kids; we wanted businesses and a real-life experience for young people."
Achieving this vision - first mooted by a group of staff in 2005 - required a huge leap of faith. The school had some spare land with planning permission and a good, but untested, idea and very little extra money. Long hours were put in to attract the funding for the development, which also includes a new sixth form centre, from a variety of public bodies and then finding the businesses to fill it.
This wasn't about trying to persuade local companies to contribute out of the goodness of their hearts. They had to be convinced that basing themselves at the school made sound business sense.
Training centres for teaching new skills
The results are impressive. The RAC training centre - where patrolmen come to learn the skills they need to fix cars at the roadside - is essentially a fully functioning state-of-the-art garage.
A contract the RAC has with Kia and Hyundai to train mechanics to service their vehicles means that Ashfield is the only school in the country with a dedicated fleet of cars, and a truck, for pupils to work on.
Next door, Carillion, the construction giant, has opened a regional training centre for its apprentices, giving pupils the opportunity for professional instruction in bricklaying, plastering, electrical installation, architecture and design.
Yards away are a series of smaller units in what is known as Ashfield Plaza. They include a fully working nursery run by a private training provider, and the HQ of the fabulously named fashion house Angels Carrying Savage Weapons.
The firm, run by husband and wife team Lindsay and Lee Fidler, specialises in corsetry, bridal wear and lingerie, and has several celebrity clients.
"It is a lot easier to teach these kinds of skills in this environment than out of a textbook," explains Ms Fidler, who intends to take a group of pupils with her to London fashion week.
Mr Davies says this kind of experience benefits all pupils, including the most academic, because they are treated as adults and become more independent learners. He predicts a 12-15 per cent rise in the proportion of pupils gaining five A*-C grade GCSEs, including English and maths, as a result of their vocational education.
The arrangement also has marked benefits for the businesses. For example, the flexibility and space the school offered Charnwood Training has enabled the company to more than double its capacity to provide staff training in catering and hospitality to breweries, and to pub, hotel and restaurant chains.
Working with a school also allows it to widen the pool of young talent available to the industry, according to co-owner Steve Smith.
"This is the perfect opportunity to capture young people early and train them either for a career for life or for jobs they will take for a short period," he says. "We are getting 14 and 15-year-olds and preparing them with the foundation that they need in areas like health and safety and food hygiene."
At Charnwood's centre, pupils can work with a trained chef in a restaurant-standard kitchen and prepare meals eagerly paid for by their teachers in what has become a very upmarket school staff canteen.
Mr Smith admits a school was the last kind of organisation he imagined he would end up in partnership with, and he initially had reservations. Alcohol, for example, is an inherent part of the industry Charnwood is involved in. But Ashfield viewed this as an opportunity rather than a problem and has used the presence of the firm to help teach pupils "alcohol awareness".
Healthcare centre scuppered
It has not all been plain sailing. A plan for the local NHS primary care trust to open a minor accident centre at the plaza that could also teach pupils about healthcare was scuppered because of the congestion that visiting ambulances might have caused for residents.
The school has also opted to run the beauty salon in the plaza itself after problems emerged with training quality.
"It wasn't hard to fill the units necessarily," says Mr Davies. "It has been about filling them with the right partners." He admits that at times he has felt more like a business centre manager than a teacher. But the school's gamble has more than paid off.
Edge, a charity that promotes vocational education, is holding up what has been achieved at this north Nottinghamshire comprehensive as an example for others to follow.
"Ashfield is spearheading an education revolution Edge would like to see spread across the nation," says chief executive Andy Powell.
Could that happen? Not all schools will have the spare land or planning permission that will enable them to build business parks on site, let alone the funding.
But a visit to Ashfield does make you wonder why anyone ever attempted to provide vocational education without the involvement of real businesses.