Cyber cafes and video-conferences offer new lessons

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The Independent Online

Brunch breaks in a cyber café replaced old-fashioned school dinners yesterday when Britain's first privately run specialist state school opened.

Video-conferencing will allow the best teachers to offer master classes with partner schools and pupils can use the latest computer technology at Kings International College in Camberley, Surrey. The state school is the second to be run by the private sector and the first combined international school and specialist business and arts college.

Formerly France Hill, a struggling comprehensive, it was handed over to 3Es Enter- prises, a commercial education company, by Tory-controlled Surrey County Council last year. It had been unpopular with parents and ran into deficit because of its falling roll. The publicity surrounding its relaunch has changed parental perceptions – this week the school's intake of 11-year-olds was up to its capacity of 210 for the first time in 10 years.

Kings International College will integrate business skills across the curriculum and link with multinational companies to prepare students for the global workplace. It has rejected the traditional A-level programme in favour of the International Baccalaureate – which is popular with independent schools – for its sixth-formers.

The company is the commercial arm of Kingshurst City Technology College, a successful Birmingham school thatruns Kings College in Guildford, which last year became the first privately managed state school. It will run Kings International on a 10-year contract.

Steve Clarke, Surrey County Council's deputy director of education, said: "The school had falling numbers and was prone to deficit. We expect to save money over the life of this contract by not having to subsidise the school any more."

The company must meet targets for pupil attendance and exam performance, including ensuring 75 per cent of the 11-year-olds who started at the school yesterday achieve five good GCSE passes in 2006.

The school's shabby 1960s buildings have also been refurbished. The first phase, which cost the council £1.3m, has given Kings International a cyber café with internet access, business suite and futuristic learning centre. The school's new front entrance and reception area would look more at home in a hotel or conference centre than in a school.

Stanley Goodchild, 3E's managing director, said: "People always say that if only they had that kind of money they too could turn schools around. That's not true. What is more important is the ethos that is provided for young people."

Teachers at the old school were forced to reapply for their jobs and only 30 per cent of the original staff remain. Those who chose to leave received a £1,250 relocation allowance. Staff who stayed had to accept the 3Es philosophy, which includes a flat management structure with no heads of department.

Ann Cockerham, the school's new principal, said: "What'sparticularly refreshing for me is being able to bring about such radical change almost overnight." Kay Hammond, a Conservative councillor and Surrey's executive member for young people, said: "We believe it will be a blueprint for schools of the future."