'This partnership has benefits for both our schools'
Wellington is an academy; its sponsor and namesake is a leading public school. Between them, they aim to eradicate the divide between the state and private sectors.
Richard Garner has been Education Editor of The Independent for 12 years and writing about the subject for 34 years. Before becoming a journalist, he worked as a disc jockey in London pubs and clubs and for a hospital radio station. His main hobbies are cricket (watching these days) and theatre. On his days off, he is most likelt to be found at Lord’s or the King’s Head Theatre Club.
Thursday 29 September 2011
Oliver was one of ours. Fagin was one of theirs." The speaker is the principal of one of the flagship academies, sponsored by a leading UK independent school.
Some might argue that it is an apt analogy, with the state sector holding out its hand for the crumbs from the independent sector – while the independent sector is representative of unscrupulous capitalists happy to make a buck by fair means or foul.
It is, of course, nothing of the sort, but a unique drama production of Oliver Twist put on by the students of the new Wellington Academy and pupils of the old established independent school, Wellington College. "It was quite an experience for our pupils," Andy Schofield, the academy's principal, says. "They played to a standing ovation every night."
The production was first staged in the state school and then transferred to Wellington College. It is only one of several joint enterprises organised by the two schools as they aim to eradicate the divide between the state and private sectors. It is not just a one-way process, he adds. "Some of their staff don't have qualified teacher status so if they want to move into the state sector, that is a barrier," Mr Schofield says. "Their head of business, for instance, did his teaching practice in our school."
The proposal to set up the new academy was the brainchild of Dr Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College and a pioneer of the academies movement. With the college's military history (it was founded by Lord Wellington), it was natural that it would seek to forge a link with a state secondary school representing a garrison area. The academy is sited in Tidworth, about a 45-minute drive from the college, and contains an army garrison. It is one of the first of the Government's flagship academies to offer boarding accommodation. Eventually, it will have 100 boarding places – designed for the children of service personnel who are suddenly transferred to do military service abroad and for the children of civilian personnel who could benefit from a boarding education. It has been a long-standing aim of the former Schools minister Andrew Adonis, the architect of the academies movement, to provide such accommodation for vulnerable children either from broken homes or where children are at risk of being taken into care. The boarding accommodation was opened for the first time this term – although so far only 15 places have been filled. There are two houses – named Benson after the first headmaster of Wellington College and Wellesley after Lord Wellington. Mr Schofield took on the post after running a successful secondary school in Brighton – ironically the town where Dr Seldon was a headteacher before he took on the Wellington post.
It replaced a secondary school, Castle Down, which had been placed in special measures – having failed its inspection by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog. It had a history of a high exclusion rate and – in an area where there was virtually no alternative provision for any pupil who was excluded – that could sound the death knell for a pupils' hopes of achieving anything academically.
Forty per cent of its intake comes from military families, so it is one of the state schools to have its own Combined Cadet Force. Mr Schofield is anxious to ensure that the children of civilian and military families enlist into the CCF to prevent any sense of a "them and us" attitude.
The rural area on the Wiltshire/Hampshire border that it serves is quite isolated. "It's a bit of a backwater – with people from military and social housing," Schofield says. "There are no real amenities. For them, this is a miracle come true. Nobody had ever invested as much in their community as this."
The school is an old-style Labour academy with a sponsor – a former high-powered executive with Goldman Sachs – ploughing £2m into the venture and Wellington College being the visible face of sponsorship at the school. It has cost £32m to provide the new buildings for the academy. Within a year, the percentage of pupils obtaining five A* to C grade passes at GCSE compared with the predecessor school shot up from 43 per cent to 98 per cent. The percentage gaining five A* to C grade passes including maths and English also rose from 29 per cent to 45 per cent.
At A-level, eight students this year found themselves becoming the first member of their families ever to go to university. "It was with the same kids who had been mucked around (in the previous school)," Mr Schofield says.
Ofsted has also described the school's progress as "outstanding". The school is now one of Wiltshire's highest performing schools.
Another innovation from the college shared by the school is a focus on children's well-being. Dr Seldon has been a pioneer of introducing the subject of well-being to the curriculum, focusing on developing pupils' self confidence. "We start it in year seven (the first year)," he says. "We would focus on things like emotional resilience, combating bullying. All our staff have signed up to well-being – what are acceptable ways to behave. Well-being also includes sport (10 per cent of curriculum time is devoted to it) and health – hence we have an interest in the food we eat. It does not detract from the academic curriculum."
The school also insists that its pupils learn two languages – German and Spanish. German is included because so many of the pupils' parents will be sent to Germany during their careers with the Army, Spanish because it is the most commonly spoken language after English in the world. The academy parts company with the Government over the emphasis given to Education Secretary Michael Gove's flagship English Baccalaureate – which pupils will obtain if they get five A* to C grades in art GCSE including maths, English, science, a foreign language and a humanities subject (history or geography)."I don't like the English Baccalaureate but I can understand where they're coming from," Mr Schofield says. "We want our kids to do three sciences and two languages but we equally value somebody who wants to be a very good chef. That's equally as valuable as being good at ancient history."
To some extent, Wellington academy is a pioneer for what ministers are hoping will be a growing number of academies sponsored by some of Britain's leading public schools.
Earlier this month, David Cameron invited heads of some of the country's most élite private schools to Downing Street to try to convince them they should be playing their part in the academies programme by sponsoring a nearby state school. Eton, his Alma Mater, is on his list of schools to target. (It is a desire that has been expressed by others, notably David Miliband when he was Schools Minister under Labour. Officially, Eton is considering developing its links with the state sector.) At present, work is continuing at the academy's 22-acre site to provide more sports facilities for the students.
The impression gained by Schofield of his partnership with Wellington College offers hope for any schools planning a similar joint enterprise. "Everything that they promised me would happen has happened," he says.
Wellington's winning ways
Wellington College was opened in 1859 and its first master was Edward White Benson, who went on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury.
It is located on a 400-acre site in Crowthorne, Berkshire and includes a top-class golf course in addition to extensive playing fields.
Former alumni include the impressionist Rory Bremner, actor Sir Christopher Lee, writer George Orwell and UK Pop Idol winner Will Young.
It now has just under 1,000 pupils aged between 13 and 18. According to the Good Schools Guide, it is "a serious player in the field of education".
It has been a pioneer of the International Baccalaureate, extending the Baccalaureate approach to its middle years as well as the sixth form.
The college has also hit the headlines as a result of its decision to introduce lessons in "happiness" – developing pupils' well-being – into the curriculum. The move continued a long tradition of providing pastoral care at Wellington.
It sponsored the founding of Wellington Academy, which opened to pupils for the first time in September 2009.
Its current master is Dr Anthony Seldon, a biographer of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and author of several policy pamphlets on the future of British education.
It was established as a national monument to the Duke of Wellington.
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