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Trailblazer moves in on academies

NEW BUILDINGS and better results are promised for two schools as further education prepares to get in on the Government's academies programme for the first time.

The "new culture" promised by Pete Birkett, principal of Barnfield College, will be immediately evident to the pupils of Halyard and South Luton high schools in Bedfordshire as they arrive in new uniforms in September - and he believes he is blazing a trail which other colleges will follow. The schools are to be known as Barnfield West Academy and Barnfield South Academy and will have sixth forms for the first time.

Mr Birkett is bullish about the college's ability to turn the two failing schools around. "Let's put it this way," he said, "when I walk into the classroom with somone, all the students will stand up and be silent."

Apart from experiencing a firm line on behaviour, a "zero tolerance"

approach to bullying and a transformation of results, the pupils will eventually find themselves housed in two new buildings in the same style as the college, which is itself due to be rebuilt.

The college's investment will take the form of pound;30 million-worth of building work each and a pound;2m trust for each school - the interest from which will be ploughed back into their budgets each year.

By improving the five GCSE pass-rate at the schools - currently under 20 per cent compared with the national average of 45.8 per cent - Mr Birkett says he will bring benefits to the college itself by improving the performance levels of its students before they have even enrolled.

The schools will offer their own alternative to college provision - each expanded from 11-16 to 11-19 - so pupils will have a choice of school sixth form or college when they reach 16.

Mr Birkett is confident FE will make further inroads into the school academy programme, which until now has been the preserve of businesses.

Several colleges around the country have contacted him with an interest in following suit.

Academy sponsorship opportunities arise where schools have been deemed to be failing. The two schools taken over by Barnfield will leave local education authority control and, under Mr Birkett's chairmanship, have a similar status to colleges which are independent corporations.

Each academy will have a new head, but Mr Birkett believes it is the strategy which needs to change rather than the quality of the staff.

He said: "We have some very good staff. What's been happening is that the schools just haven't pressed the right buttons that you need to improve those results.

"What we want to do is make sure people get the best education and training first time round. But I also want the students to be happy and secure.

There will be rules and regulations which follow traditional values."

The new buildings are expected to be up in three years. The two heads - to be known as principals - have been appointed and will report to Mr Birkett, who will serve as chairman to the board of each academy.

Patrick Hannaway, a former head in Northern Ireland, will be principal of Barnfield South Academy and Rachel Desouza, who will run Barnfield West Academy, moves from her job as a deputy head of a school in Luton.

Barnfield South will specialise in ICT, performing arts and entertainment, while Barnfield West will focus on ICT, creative industries and enterprise.

Both will be obliged to follow the national curriculum and must have an LEA representative on their board.

Despite its location in the south-east commuter belt, Luton has had a taste of the economic problems more commonly associated with towns further from the capital. The decison by Vauxhall to cease car production in the town in 2000 heralded the loss of 2,500 jobs. Seven years later, Luton still suffers high levels of unemployment.

Some of Mr Birkett's colleagues think he is brave to venture into the business of turning around failing schools, but others are waiting to follow his lead if he succeeds. In the next few years, the Department for Education and Skills is likely to be seeing a lot of college principals as it presses ahead with academies - and the business sector could find it has some tough competition if it wants to continue making its mark on compulsory education.

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