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Welcome to a cathedral of education

Teacher Nation, our series celebrating the rich variety of schools serving diverse communities throughout the UK, from a one-pupil primary on the isle of Canna to a Fame-style secondary, concludes this week with Britain's newest, most expensive school, about to open its doors to 2,200 pupils.

Photographs Roy Kilcullen

On monday week, 2,200 pupils and 277 staff will walk through the doors of a brand new pound;49 million academy in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire.

Thomas Deacon Academy has been more than four years in development and fraught with controversy over land deals, school closures, admissions, timetable issues and the lack of a playground.

However, there are plentiful playing fields, several all-weather pitches, tennis courts, a sculpture park and a large wildlife pond. Indoor facilities include a sports hall and gym that will be open for community use too.

Parents had complained about the lack of a scheduled break time and Alan McMurdo, the headteacher, was condemned in the national press when he said children did not need "a period of haphazard random activity" in their day. He said class teachers could allow pupils outside when they felt like it, as part of each 90-minute lesson. Going to school, he said, would be like going to the office. He has subsequently promised to keep his decision under review.

Despite the criticisms, the atmosphere at the academy seemed to be upbeat last week as workmen added finishing touches.

Architects Foster and Partners have created a curvaceous educational cathedral with almost no corners. A vast central "nave" is topped with a domed roof and triangular windows. This open-plan space houses a multimedia research area stocked with computers, several dance and drama studios and a lecture theatre.

Six almost circular colour-coded "transepts" lead off from the main body of the building. These classrooms are the base for six mixed-age "colleges" the school's house system each with 330 pupils, who will wear different colour ties to denote their college. This system has been designed to help pupils and staff cope with the academy's size.

A science lab built almost entirely from glass sits above the main entrance, highlighting the school's specialist maths and science status. The school's insignia, a carbon atom, will be emblazoned across the front within the next few days.

"It's the ultimate cross-curricular element," Dr McMurdo says, "with its connection to big issues such as global warming."

The building, the UK's most expensive school, adds to the weight of expectations on the headteacher, who was previously head of Prince William school in nearby Oundle, a secondary with 1,100 pupils.

Dr McMurdo, who has a PhD in biology and started his career teaching maths and English 25 years ago on HMS Battleaxe in the Caribbean, said: "The responsibilities will be many but I look forward to them.

"I don't see why anyone can say that, morally, investing pound;50 million in Peterborough isn't well spent. Providing buildings like these sends out a subliminal message to children that we think they are worth it."

He said that other local schools, which have not profited directly from extra cash, would benefit from the academy's presence. "We will not exist as an island," he said.

The academy, which is sponsored by Perkins Engines and the charitable Deacon's Trust, is part of a pound;100 million project to merge several schools in Peterborough. Five have been shut and replaced by the academy which incorporates three and a pound;26 million school called The Voyager, which also opens this term. Another academy is expected to be created from two community schools in the city's southern suburbs.

Dr McMurdo says: "There has been some local disquiet and perhaps early on communication on a local level wasn't our strength, but we have worked hard on this.

"In my view, the academies project is defending itself."

The school is one of 36 academies opening in England this term, taking the total up to 83. The Government plans to open 200 by 2010 and 200 others after that.

In the build-up to the opening of Thomas Deacon, there were fears that it would cream off the most able pupils from the most middle class areas of the city. But, like many academies, selection for places has been through the fair banding system, with pupils sitting non-verbal tests to ascertain their abilities. An equal number of pupils are taken from each ability range, ideally creating a truly mixed ability school.

June Clegg, its director of achievement support, says the academy will put a huge focus on helping less able pupils reach their potential. Rejecting the term "special needs", she says it is important that children are not defined by what they can't do.

"I am loath to use the old language to describe what we are doing. I want to use a language of capability and avoid labelling at all costs," she says.

Instead of a special educational needs co-ordinator, there is a pupil progress manager.

A lot of work has been going on to prepare pupils for the new term. Teachers in the merged schools have been trying to synchronise the exam boards and syllabuses they use to ease the transition for pupils at GCSE and A-level.

Chris Walford, who was head of the former John Mansfield school, says pupils were told early on how the academy would be organised and which college they would be in. Parents were more likely than the children to be concerned.

"The pupils may be apprehensive, but within one or two weeks they will get used to the setting.

"The size factor may affect only pupils with special educational needs who benefited from a smaller school," he says.

A large proportion of teachers at Thomas Deacon has crossed over from predecessor schools. Posts were advertised at "inner London salaries" on condition that staff worked longer hours. Unions criticised the deal, warning it would erode the pay and conditions package for teachers. But Louise Moir, head of sixth form and leader of one of its colleges, said she was happy to work 15 extra days per year for a larger pay packet.

"Most teachers work a lot of extra time anyway, during holidays and after school. I just see this as being paid for what I was doing anyway."

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