FEATURE: Thetford Academy looks to the future

Cathy Spillane at Thetford Academy
Cathy Spillane at Thetford Academy

Looking into the faces of the teens in the Rosemary Musker High School year of 2000 leavers’ picture, I carry out a quick mental roll call.

She works at Danepak. He’s been at Baxter’s for years. I think she does graphic design somewhere?

My utterly unscientific survey is to answer a simple question – how many of my peers at school in Thetford made it to university?

Not many. Six out of about 120, by my reckoning. To put that in context, I know three have been to prison.

Growing up in Thetford, I never realised this was unusual until university.

It was then classmates told me how teachers had near bullied them into applying for higher education.

That might have been too far to the other extreme, but it made me wonder why my school never pushed me and my friends in a similar way?

Fast forward a decade, and it seems that, in terms of results, little has changed.

In figures released last week by the Department for Education, my old school was rated as the fourth worst in Norfolk for getting students into university in 2010 – just 26 per cent made it.

It was results like that which brought about the merging of Rosemary Musker with its neighbour, Charles Burrell High School, to form the Thetford Academy in September 2010.

A new dawn was promised. Millions of pounds was pledged for a new building, a highly-paid principal was parachuted in and plans for a single site were put in place.

A battle between the school and parents was fought over the single site move, with many from the south of the town objecting as it left their children with a three mile commute.

Meanwhile, the handsomely paid principal – Christine Carey – had to resign due to ill health.

Then the promised funding of nearly £40 million for building work was slashed to £18.2 million.

Things were not going smoothly.

In an attempt to turn the corner, the school appointed long-standing teacher and acting principal, Cathy Spillane, to the top job in April 2011.

There followed an immediate upturn in fortunes, with Ofsted reporting that progress was being made following a monitoring report in February 2012.

Building work on the single site began later that year, with a completion date of September 2013.

The disruption of the work brought its own difficulties, but the biggest blow was yet to come.

An Ofsted inspection last February, just a year after the school was said to be making progress, found its performance was inadequate, plunging it into special measures.

In these situations, schools normally respond by saying they are working hard to make a difference and confident of improving.

The school did that, but it also took a different tack, openly calling for parents to do more to help the school.

It even revealed that some parents had been prosecuted for not making their children attend.

It was a plea that hinted at an oft-ignored fact – that sometimes the most influential factors in a school’s success exist outside its gates.

Five months later, and Ms Spillane’s view hasn’t changed.

“The problem was that when the two predecessor schools closed down, nobody asked the parents of Thetford if they thought that was a good idea.

“A lot of parents actually liked the two schools, they were schools they’d been to.

“That’s made getting support incredibly hard and we need them behind us, even though they didn’t want this school.”

With the Department for Education saying parental involvement has a ‘significant effect’ on children’s achievement, it’s no wonder it’s become a focus for the school.

It’s also an issue recognised by parents.

Matt Parfett, part of the Friends of Thetford Academy group which includes parents and other supporters, agrees that community support was an issue.

“One of the reasons we started the group was that we felt the response to the Ofsted report had made it look like the community didn’t care.

“Communication is a big problem though, and we’re trying to step in and improve something that’s almost not even there.

“But this academy is here and no amount of moaning about it is going to make that change.”

Another point of consensus between Mr Parfett and Ms Spillane is that Thetford’s reputation is a problem.

Some of the perceived issues in the town are real – pockets of deprivation, a decaying town centre and a lack of quality jobs.

But there is also a lot to be proud of in Thetford, according to Ms Spillane, and its sullied image makes it difficult to attract a vital ingredient for progress – new teachers.

“I’m quite fond of Thetford and wouldn’t want to be a head anywhere else, but trying to convince people who don’t know the town of that can be tough.

“Look at our maths department. We really looked at the department, we moved teachers on and then finding replacements was incredibly difficult. We have had to get them in from Canada to find success.”

The other result of the town’s troubled image – and its educational performance – is that children are sent elsewhere.

Those with the means have long bussed their children out to Bury St Edmunds, Methwold, Old Buckenham and beyond, rather than send them to a Thetford school. Others keep them closer to home at the private Thetford Grammar School.

As a result, the most able children, with the most supportive parents, end up migrating away from the town, meaning the academy misses out on the brightest pupils.

This is a view held by Mike Brindle, a former Norfolk county councillor who was headteacher at Rosemary Musker for 15 years.

For Mr Brindle, issues with recruitment, parent involvement and the town’s reputation are nothing new. According to him, they have been apparent since he started at the school in 1987.

But much of the power needed to break that vicious cycle is not in the school’s hands, meaning it has to focus on doing the best with what it has, he says.

“If you are not getting the most able and committed children in then you have to show that you have added value to the children you do have.

“On those terms, Rosemary Musker always did quite well, I feel.”

Unfortunately, Ofsted do not see it that way. Both Rosemary Musker and Charles Burrell were seen as failing schools that needed change.

Talk to any headteacher and you’ll hear a common complaint – Ofsted doesn’t take extenuating circumstances into account.

Teachers should be able to cope with outside issues and do as good a job as any other school.

So the fact that Thetford Academy is a building site makes no difference.

The fact that the number of students at the school receiving free school meals is above the national average makes no difference.

The fact that the number of disabled students and those with special educational needs is above the national average makes no difference.

The fact that a fifth of pupils don’t have English as their first language – the highest in Norfolk – makes no difference.

Perhaps to the students who have been through Thetford’s schools in the past 10 years, who have seen their learning disrupted by a revolving door of headteachers and been left behind while other schools flourish, it all makes a difference.