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Education: The sky’s the limit

by
25 September 2015

A church school in Kidderminster is being regenerated, writes Pat Ashworth

THE motto of Wolverley C of E Secondary School, “Ambition Unlimited”, cannot escape notice. It is boldly displayed at the entrance to an imposing main building and quad that still looks like the public school it was from 1948 to 1970.

After that, its history was chequered. The school became Wolverley High School until 2007, when the Worcestershire local authority changed from a three-tier to a two-tier education system, and the school was closed. It reopened as a voluntary controlled church school in the same year.

The surroundings — leafy acres of countryside on the fringes of Kidderminster — are stunning. But this is no place of privilege. The head teacher, Bryn Thomas, who has been in post for 18 months, inherited a school whose reputation had plummeted, and which had been judged by OFSTED, just days before he took over, to be in need of improvement.

Staff morale was low, parents did not choose to send their children to the school, and, when Mr Thomas arrived, Year 7 had just 65 children instead of the 140 admissions allocated.

The bulk of students came from the sprawling, mainly white estates of Kidderminster, a town only now beginning to recover from the collapse of the carpet industry. “A lot of the families worked in the industry, and historically a lot of the young people in the area relied on it for a career,” Mr Thomas says. “There was a tradition of inheriting jobs; so there was no aspiration to go beyond the town. They stay here, but there’s no employment for them; so we are left with this void.”

 

“AMBITION Unlimited” is no empty phrase. It is more a call to arms: what Mr Thomas describes as “a stick of rock running right through. I want to give them an experience here that will allow them to see past Kidderminster.”

At his first school assembly at Wolverley, he told the tale of a boy from a Birmingham council estate who was on free school meals, and who managed, through determination, to get himself an education and a good job. “This was me,” he revealed to them at the end. “This is your head teacher. I wasn’t born privileged and posh. I learned it. So which of you will be Prime Minister?

“They see me with my sleeves rolled up and getting stuck in, and there is definite respect there. Some of them are beginning to believe they can do it.”

Having worked in inner-city and multifaith schools in Birmingham, he is conscious of a lack of aspiration and work ethic in many white families. “These guys haven’t got it,” he says bluntly. “It’s a battle with society, but that’s where we are.”

He has taken a revolutionary approach, and one that is beginning to pay huge dividends. The school’s biggest asset was its surroundings: the grounds alone cover 25 acres, and much of that was wasteland — “all just brambles and weeds and stuff”, Bethany Williams remembers. She is a Year 10 pupil whom we meet on a tour of the grounds. “It used to be awful here,” she says. “But look at it now. I can’t wait to be in Year 11. We’re having a new science block as well.”

 

MR THOMAS’s vision was to turn the school into what he calls “a truly unique learning environment”, with a balance of traditional and outdoor learning that would encourage students to pursue BTech qualifications, and seek a career in rural industries such as animal care.

So in came an Animal Centre, with, at first, rabbits, snakes, guinea pigs, and bearded dragons. Then came bigger animals, such as sheep, and now they have now got three goats — Bill, Jasper, and Paddy — who are also from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are looking forward to having cattle at the centre, too.

There is a big outdoor classroom — a roofed structure without walls, where the students can learn to cook in an earth oven, or make mosaics, or do any number of environmental activities. In a woodland glade, we come across a small and eager group of primary-school children crouching round a smoking camp-fire, on which they are about to cook the dough they have just made.

The school is now a hub for outdoor activities such as survival skills, put on by a commercial company that runs them with staff support from what was a disused building on the site. The school is proud, too, to be a Worcestershire Eco Schools Mentor School, where eco-teams of staff and senior students help primary schools in the area to implement environmentally friendly processes in topics such as energy and healthy living.

The school inherited a dry ski-slope, which is also used by local schools and the community. One of the school PE teachers is a qualified instructor; other instructors are booked ad hoc. An academy in Wolverhampton is using it today, and the air is ringing with cheers and giggles. An empty hut has been filled with shelves, and converted to a boot room for the ski equipment.

 

THERE is no graffiti anywhere, no damage, and no litter. It is two days before the end of the summer term — a non-uniform day that features a barbecue efficiently organised and run by BTech and other students — and there is an al fresco maths lesson in the quad, which has newly landscaped seating areas and freshly planted borders. The local community donated the plants, and the children did the work.

“What does al fresco mean?” Mr Thomas asks the class. They work out that it means outside. “How come we have no problems with litter here, and other schools do?” he asks them. “Because we have lot of bins?” one boy suggests. Another gets it: “Because it’s nice here, and we care about the school. We’re proud of it,” he says, unprompted.

One of Mr Thomas’s first priorities was to modernise the school hall and integrated chapel — the latter a depressingly 1970s environment of orange carpet and orange Dralon chairs. Money was found for putting in a stripped wooden floor, easily reconfigured seating, white walls, and contemporary ironwork. Coloured banners hang here proclaiming the school’s six key values: love, respect, forgiveness, gratitude, understanding, and belonging.

“Having a Christian ethos gives us a core ethos that lots of schools don’t have. Because how do you create one?” Mr Thomas reflects. “They’re incredibly respectful of this space, as they are of the village church, which they all go down to every half-term.” There is a chaplaincy team of three, and collective worship for the staff as well as for the whole school.

 

STAFF morale under Mr Thomas has risen to the extent that there have been no staff absences this year. That is “stunning”, he says. The staff programme rewards attendance. Teachers get time off to go to their own children’s productions, and for family occasions. There is an “open door” week when staff can wander into each other’s classrooms, watch their colleagues teach, and pick up good practice.

There has been a 45-per-cent rise in Year 7 admissions, and, although the school has a long way to go, the exam results are encouraging. At GCSE this year, several pupils obtained outstanding results: 46 per cent of students achieved five or more A* to C grades, including Maths and English; 20 per cent of the year group attained five or more A* or A grades; and 62 per cent of students passed five GCSEs with grades A* to C. The school achieved particularly good results in Science, Spanish, RE, Dance, and Drama.

Most pleasing of all is that students achieved results well above those predicted when they joined Year 7. Mr Thomas would like to see the school achieve a “Good” rating in the next inspection — a step towards the ultimate goal of “Outstanding”.

“We’re beginning to see a difference,” he says. “So much of what we have done in the past few months has been new and exciting. We need it all to be self-sustaining, and we’re on the way.”

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