School takes over fire station to show it’s cool to like science

Struggle to find premises solved after head of trust spotted disused building while driving home

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The Independent Online

Teaching is often likened to fire-fighting by those who think it can be just an exercise in controlling pupils.

In the case of the Sir Isaac Newton sixth-form college in Norwich, one of Education Secretary Michael Gove’s latest free schools, the metaphor is quite literal – to the extent that the principal’s office has the words “Chief Fire Officer” written above the door.

The reason, though, is not because of some need for controlling over-unruly pupils. The school just happens to have been opened in a disused fire station with conservation laws insisting that it had to preserve the character of what is a Grade Two listed building.

Finding suitable premises is often one of the most difficult tasks facing any group wanting to open one of the Government’s new free schools. In this case, Dame Rachel de Souza, chief executive of the Inspiration Trust – which runs the school and six others in Norfolk – spotted the premises on the way home from an evening outing and thought it would be ideal for a school.

Dame Rachel, previously head of an nearby academy rated “outstanding” by education standards watchdog Ofsted, said: “We started with the idea that a science school was something that Norfolk really needed.

“Most children were being taught in schools with little sixth forms – possibly in a class of just three doing the subject. Performance [in science] was below average across the county.”

Dr Mark Evans, the principal, said the college was trying to create a culture where it is “cool” and “not geeky” to want to become a scientist.

The college is already oversubscribed for its second intake of pupils in September with 280 applications for 200 places. This year, like many other free schools, it only got permission to move into its new building just a few weeks before the start of term and enrolled 70 students.

A straw poll of students by The Independent revealed that just over half were likely to be the first person in their family to go to university – indicating that it is attracting students from more disadvantaged communities.

One first timer will be 17-year-old Emily Wolfenden, who, the school believes,  would be ideal for reading natural sciences at Cambridge. “I doubt if I’ll get in [to Cambridge] but I’ll give it a try,” she said. “The thing about studying here, though, is that it boosts your confidence.”

The college has had a succession of inspirational speakers from the world of science and maths to convince the pupils that they can make a successful career from their chosen subjects.

Felix de Neve, aged 17, said: “It is more specialised here. I wasn’t really sure about it at first but it helps studying alongside like-minded people.”

Walk down the road for 10 minutes and you come across another free school – also run by the trust – that has found an unusual setting to start up a new school.

The Jane Austen free school, which will specialise in the arts and humanities, is to set up in a disused shoe factory and will, says Dame Rachel, complement the Sir Isaac Newton college.

The two schools will be able to share teachers so that  if a pupil wanted to combine arts with a science subject, for example, all they would have to do is to take that 10-minute walk for expert teaching.