Education: Academy awards

by
15 September 2009

Universities are branching out into academies, Margaret Holness reports

New intake: Thomas McKeown, Lizzie Theaker, and Patrick Rabsky outside the new University Academy

New intake: Thomas McKeown, Lizzie Theaker, and Patrick Rabsky outside the new University Academy

THE University of Chester Church of En­gland Academy, Ellesmere Port, which opened its doors earlier this month, has the distinc­tion, as its name suggests, of being the first school of its kind sponsored primarily by one of the 11 C of E higher-education institutions that have gained university status over the past ten years.

The academy’s overriding mis­sion, the university’s Vice-chancellor, Professor Tim Wheeler, says, is to give a first-rate education to about 1300 children in a de­pressed part of west Cheshire, where it is replacing two schools that have faced serious challenges.

Moreover, the Church of England hallmark goes much further than the name. Between them, the university and Chester diocese make up the majority on the governing body, which is chaired by the Bishop, Dr Peter Forster. Chris­tian values will be overt in every part of the cur­riculum, Professor Wheeler says, and there will be close links with the medieval sand­stone cathedral, eight miles distant. Two other academies, in the city itself and the Wirral, are in the pipeline.

Chester, and another Anglican university, Christ Church, Canterbury, were named as members of an élite group of accredited school providers announced in June by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls. The announcement drew attention to the strong teacher-training departments of both universities.

Chester is the oldest centre for teacher edu­ca­tion in the north-west region. At the other end of the country, Christ Church sends out more than 1000 new teachers every year. Both were originally diocesan teacher-training col­leges. Chester, the first, began its work in 1839; and Christ Church, founded in 1962, was the last.

Chester is the oldest centre for teacher edu­ca­tion in the north-west region. At the other end of the country, Christ Church sends out more than 1000 new teachers every year. Both were originally diocesan teacher-training col­leges. Chester, the first, began its work in 1839; and Christ Church, founded in 1962, was the last.

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THESE new school providers are historically ap­pro­priate. In the mid-19th century, the Church of England’s new National Society was virtually the only provider of education for working-class children, and thoughtful bishops, such as the Rt Revd John Sumner at Chester — later Archbishop of Canterbury — worried that the teachers themselves were under-educated and needed more professional training.

Many diocesan colleges were founded to teach the teachers, with the backing of prominent Victorian reformers. William Glad­stone was involved in the foundation of Chester College, and made the highest finan­cial contribution.

Attached to most colleges were training schools where student teachers honed their skills. The training schools also functioned as educational laboratories, where the curriculum was developed and new teaching techniques were tried.

By 1842, Chester College had gone further, pro­viding a form of secondary education through its Commercial and Agricultural School that by the 1850s had been renamed the Science College. The vision of the churchmen who founded these schools, to educate for a changing society, is strikingly similar to the current concept of academies with innovative curricula designed to engage students in deprived areas.

As higher-education colleges, now with uni­versity status, Chester and Christ Church have a vastly expanded aca­demic remit. Never­the­less, as con­sciously Chris­tian institutions, both retain a strong sense of social just­ice and a duty to the least privi­leged in their com­muni­ties. “In­volve­ment with academ­ies is a natural pro­gres­sion for us,” Professor Wheeler says. While the re­sources of the fa­cul­­ty of educa­tion are, per­haps, para­mount, other facul­ties are joining in.

In previous at­tempts to raise stan­dards, the two schools that will join the Ellesmere Port academy were desig­nated respec­tively as spe­cialist sport and performing-arts schools. In the new aca­demy, another special­ism, mathe­ma­tics, has been added. This is a brave move, because few stu­dents at the pre­decessor schools had achieved the Govern­ment’s benchmark of five GCE passes at A*-C, including English and maths.

The university, how­ever, has a discrete maths department, as well as, within the education faculty, experts in teach­ing the subject. Both will be harnessed to lift the level of the subject in the academy.

The university, how­ever, has a discrete maths department, as well as, within the education faculty, experts in teach­ing the subject. Both will be harnessed to lift the level of the subject in the academy.

WHATEVER the resources, creating an academy that works is no job for the faint-hearted, as Anna Sutton, the Dean of Education at Chester, acknowledges. She sees the academy as a practical ­working out of the Government’s Every Child Matters agenda. Any vision has to be trans­lated practic­ally, however; so three years of care­ful preparation preceded the open­ing this month, and last-minute tweaks continued during the vaca­tion.

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The planners have been strongly influenced by the principles of Edison Learning, an education con­sul­tancy with a successful record of school improvement in the United States, notably in the toughest city areas. Recently, the organisation has been making waves in similar projects in the UK. Because of its emphasis on values, it has already had a part to play in the develop­ment of other C of E academies.

Its highly structured approach, with a core emphasis on English and maths, leaves space for genuine flexi­bility in the curriculum, at the same time insisting on continuous monit­or­ing of students’ progress. Mentors — for teachers as well as students — are also an essential part of the plan.

The education faculty has a key part to play here, designing what Mrs Sutton describes as “bespoke” pro­fessional-development pro­grammes for the teaching staff. “We will tailor courses to whatever aca­demy staff tell us they need,” she says. There are plans, too, for Chester’s undergrad­uates to be individual mentors to the academy’s students.

ANOTHER Edison principle is education on a human scale, reflect­ing research that shows the advan­tages of smaller units over larger ones. So the new academy has been designed to operate in three separate tiers: lower college for years seven and eight; upper college for years nine to 11; and senior college for years 12 and 13.

This system is already in opera­tion, although the academy is housed for the moment in the buildings of its predecessor schools until its multi-million-pound campus is completed in 2012. Colin Hankin­son, the university’s director of academy development, is certain this strategy will improve students’ sense of well-being and behaviour. “We want the children to see each ‘college’ as a family in which they can feel at home and relate better to each other and their teachers.”

Dr Hankinson, formerly in charge of teaching and learning in a large London comprehensive, has sup­ported a goal that could be seen as impossibly high for the aca­demy’s first year. He wants to achieve a 40-per-cent GCSE pass rate at grades A*-C, crucially including English and maths. This would be a significant rise on the combined at­tainment of the predecessor schools.

This system is already in opera­tion, although the academy is housed for the moment in the buildings of its predecessor schools until its multi-million-pound campus is completed in 2012. Colin Hankin­son, the university’s director of academy development, is certain this strategy will improve students’ sense of well-being and behaviour. “We want the children to see each ‘college’ as a family in which they can feel at home and relate better to each other and their teachers.”

Dr Hankinson, formerly in charge of teaching and learning in a large London comprehensive, has sup­ported a goal that could be seen as impossibly high for the aca­demy’s first year. He wants to achieve a 40-per-cent GCSE pass rate at grades A*-C, crucially including English and maths. This would be a significant rise on the combined at­tainment of the predecessor schools.

“I recognise that,” he says, “but I genuinely believe that between them our students and teachers can make it happen. Students live up — or down — to our expectations of them; so we need to set demanding but achievable goals.”

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