The Bury St Edmunds All-Through Trust has revealed its vision for a new multi-million pound technical academy - designed to offer a vocational education for pupils who struggle with a strict academic style of learning.
The free school, due to open in Bury in 2017, will offer a more practical industry-inspired focus on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects for those 13 to 18-year-olds whose ambitions and morale are hampered by ‘traditional’ schooling.
Vicky Neale, headteacher at County Upper School, believes that current emphasis on academic ability fails youngsters who ultimately perform at a higher level in vocational skills and would therefore benefit from a different approach.
Mrs Neale, is the architect of the proposals, which have been in the pipeline for four years and were recently given the go-ahead by the Government.
“I still teach - I teach science and you’re very conscious there are pupils for whom that very academic behind a desk style of learning just doesn’t get the best out of them and they could be challenged better.”
She says the move goes back to the 1944 Education Act when technical schools were envisaged but failed to materialise across many local authorities.
The new academy would still offer the necessary English, maths, science, history or geography and a foreign language. There would then be other options to choose from within the STEM field.
Pupils would still achieve GCSEs and the content would be the same as at traditional school but the approach more practical.
A roster of businesses from industry have agreed to support the academy to develop and implement the curriculum, offer work experience as well as provide career advice and guidance.
They are Microsoft, ARM, Bosch, British Sugar, Claas UK, BT, EDF, Marshall Aerospace, Rolls-Royce, Redgate Software, Treatt, UK Power Networks, Vitec, Suffolk Education Business Partnership and the University of East Anglia. The University would offer its expertise in science and support teacher training in STEM subjects - an area which Mrs Neale thinks could benefit all schools in the town.
The businesses and academy would set up practical projects for pupils to work on in each subject to develop their learning.
“When they’re younger it would be smaller manageable projects and then we would review it. It might be production of a chemical for example,” Mrs Neale says.
While not expecting industry to be at the school all the time, she says professionals could come in every so often to check how pupils are progressing.
For languages, Mrs Neale envisages creating a qualification equivalent to a GCSE which would focus on communicating in a more technical scientific way.
The All-Through Trust is designed to provide a ‘seamless’ education for pupils across three phases with pupils aged 4-9 attending Barrow and Tollgate Primary Schools; those aged 9-13 going to Horringer Court and Westley Schools and 13 to 18-year-olds studying at County Upper or the STEM academy.
Mrs Neale hopes that County Upper’s reputation as an Ofsted-rated ‘outstanding’ school will help to challenge the ‘stigma’ often attached to vocational education.
“It’s that group who actually do quite well at GCSE but for whom the real academic route isn’t the way,” she says.
Starting with Years 9 and 12, the academy could eventually take 500 to 600 pupils with about 110 in each year group. County Upper could reduce its numbers from the current 260 to 220 a year as they expect some pupils would opt for the STEM provision.
The trust aims to appoint a headteacher to start in January 2017 before it opens in September.
While staff could be shared across the trust as now, there would need to be about 12 new teachers at the academy for the first year which would eventually grow to 25.
The trust will also work with West Suffolk College to help deliver post-16 provision.
The academy won the backing of Bury MP Jo Churchill, who wrote in support of it to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan.
It was announced in a tranche of the latest free schools and Mrs Neale said this was the only route to acquire adequate funding.
“My view is that if that’s where the money is why shouldn’t it come to West Suffolk.”
On the school’s price tag and location, she added: “The DfE recognises it’s going to cost millions because you’re not going to do it on a shoe-string and they will have further discussion with us about where so by the new calendar year the plans will be decided.”
While a site has yet to be chosen for the new academy but Mrs Neale says it ‘needs to be in the heart of the town’.
Mrs Neale says: “We’ve talked to students over the last few years - there’s no doubt it does excite a group of students who are not excited by that straight academic route, and who think they would do better, that they would be challenged and would rise to the challenge.”