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'Tesco' head starts successful chain

Morale plummeted two years ago at Oldborough Manor community school, when fewer than one in eight of their 15-year-olds passed five GCSE subjects.

That same year, Ofsted paid a visit to the small secondary modern in Maidstone, Kent. "Serious weaknesses" and "unsatisfactory overall" achievement were among the report's lowlights.

But, almost as an aside, the Ofsted inspectors noted that Oldborough was on the verge of formally federating with two local schools the following year, including the top-performing Cornwallis.

Jamie Wilson, who teaches performing arts at the three schools, remembered Oldborough Manor at its worst: the angry teenagers from the council estates, their black uniforms as scruffy as the chipped paint in the school corridors.

"When I first started there, it was a lot more aggressive. The students were unhappy, the staff were unhappy. They knew they were struggling and they could not see any light at the end of the tunnel."

This week Mr Wilson has been rehearsing a drama with students from all three schools about the experiences of a student who is bullied when she starts at secondary school.

The model for the character is Hayley Bullion, 15, from Oldborough Manor, who said the story had a happy ending: the character started out scared and lonely, but after a year found a strong group of friends in the bigger school.

"Since the schools have got together there are different attitudes, there are interesting new subjects, people are mixing," she said.

Chris Gerry, appointed chief executive of the new federation, had previously made headlines by sending out for McDonald's burgers when the canteen at his previous school was short-staffed.

Last year he branded the tri-school grouping as New Line Learning, and provocatively outlined his vision for chains of schools modelled on Tesco.

Within months of formal federation, the DfES reported that the proportion of Oldborough students passing five GCSE subjects had nearly tripled.

Most of the New Line students now carry Tablet portable computers. From next month, students at the three schools will wear new black sweartshirts with a sci-fi New Line Learning logo.

And soon, according to plans, the Oldborough Manor and Senacre school buildings will be ripped down and the two schools rebuilt next door to each other on the Oldborough site, funded by selling the Senacre site to housing developers.

Dr Gerry said he was following the Tesco model right down to dictating the spaces between the desks. "I think partnership with a successful school is the only answer for small struggling schools," he said.

"With a dispersed model of 3,500 schools, you're running an experiment in every school. My model would have schools be part of larger groupings, because you get synergies there that you can't get operating on your own.

"It is the corner-shop model or the supermarket: everyone in their hearts wants the corner shop, but they go to the supermarket because it works."

But Peter Vokes, Kent divisional secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said he was concerned that New Line Learning's model neglected a school's primary job: "The role of a school is to focus on individual pupils; they are not shelves of goods."

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