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Tuesday, 10 September, 2002, 17:03 GMT 18:03 UK
Academy opens doors to the future
The first city academy has opened its doors - and it hopes to leave them open in a way that is unlike most conventional schools.
The Business Academy, Bexley, which serves the south-east London overspill estates of Thamesmead and Erith, is the first of a new type of secondary school.
A partnership of public and private funds and management, these flagship schools are to develop new approaches to old problems.
They will have to find ways to motivate pupils in areas which have seen generations of educational failure.
At the Business Academy, Bexley, the school will open at 7am and will be open until 10pm - with timetabled lessons beginning at 8.20am.
Stephen Twigg, the education minister with responsibility for revitalising London schools, who attended the school's first day, said that such flexibility in opening hours could be usefully applied in other state schools.
"I'm particularly interested in the idea of schools being open outside of school hours. It would be a response to young people saying 'there's nothing to do round here'," he said.
"You often see schools locked up - and the more open they are the better. Let's try to make that the norm."
The school's chief executive, Valerie Bragg, said inner-city pupils often felt safer in school than outside - and the early opening would offer a welcoming environment.
The school will provide breakfast and there will be "brunch" breaks, rather than a long lunch hour.
And the concept of openness extends to the physical layout of the school, which is based around flexible, open areas, rather than corridors and classrooms.
The technology, along with the new purple uniforms, is the most eye-catching feature of the school.
Classrooms look more like hi-tech offices, with clusters of flat-screen display computers and lessons taught using touch-screen whiteboards.
Pupils have e-mail accounts and will be encouraged to use e-mail for submitting homework. And there will be electronic registration.
When it comes to assembly, there are no lines of pupils sitting on the floor. Instead they sit in purple chairs that look like they have been taken from the pages of a style magazine.
There are also ambitions to make the Business Academy, Bexley, the first "cradle to university" state school.
Although it will provide 1,350 places for 11 to 18 year olds, there is a plan to develop a primary and pre-school service, sharing a 33-acre campus.
The school will offer the national curriculum - but on Fridays, instead of the usual lessons, there will be a variety of projects and guest speakers, focused on the school's specialist subject of business.
Pupils will not take A-levels or AS-levels at the school. Instead they will take the International Baccalaureate, which involves six subjects, including English, science and a modern language.
Head teachers unimpressed
The education minister, who defended the value of A-levels when exam results were published last month, said such decisions were a matter for each school.
The school's principal, Tom Widdows, said that the European-style qualification offered a greater breadth than A-levels and gave opportunities for more self-study.
City academies have been criticised by head teachers as likely to distort local education systems, attracting more able and motivated pupils at the expense of local schools.
But Mr Twigg said they would be "local schools for local people. It's not going to be about bussing people in."
"It's a different way of delivering a comprehensive education, not a return to selection at 11."
All applicants to the school will take a test, with the children then divided into nine ability bands.
The school will offer places to a selection of pupils from all of these bands, so as to produce a mixed intake.
Where there are too many applicants from an ability band, the determining factors will be whether applicants already have siblings at the school and on how near they live.
City academies are founded with the support of businesses, churches or community organisations.
The Business Academy, Bexley, has received £2.5m sponsorship from property developer David Garrard, in a partnership that includes 3E's Enterprises, the Department for Education and Bexley Council.
Addressing the pupils at the school's first ever assembly, Mr Garrard told them to remember the school's motto: "No goal is beyond our reach."
And he said that the school, once completed, would offer amenities which would not be available at other state schools - and that this would encourage pupils to have "self-esteem, self-confidence and pride".
The purpose-built school, designed by Lord Foster, is to have state of the art technology, videoconferencing, interactive whiteboards, a mini stock-exchange, a television studio and an all-weather sports centre.
So how does it feel for the pupils?
Kieran, on his first day, says he likes the idea of being part of a school which is "the first of its kind in the world".
But catching the train in time to get to school by 8.20am means that he has to get up at 6.30am, which might seem like a long day for an 11 year old.
After primary school, he says that he likes the feeling of "being treated like an adult". And he says that he does not expect the school to have any problems with discipline.
The school is filled with optimism, but tackling a culture of underachievement in schools is no simple task.
The city academy scheme follows in the uncertain foosteps of the "fresh start" plans, which saw failing schools re-opened under new, innovative leadership.
But the re-branding often failed to overcome the ingrained problems in deprived areas and the cycle of underachievement proved resistant to change.
The Business Academy, Bexley replaces Thamesmead Community College, which had one of the worst records for GCSE results in the country.
And many of the former pupils will be returning to the new-look school for the remainder of their secondary education.
Principal, Tom Widdows, says that cynicism can be overcome - and he is pushing the message to pupils that they have to play their part by respecting the opportunities they are being offered.
He uses the phrase "stealing someone else's education", as a way of describing bad behaviour.
The new school building, with its designer exterior and flags flying, is making a very visible mark on the neighbourhood.
But you only have to look in the neighbouring streets to find the decaying housing blocks that show how plans can go astray.
And the challenge will be for the academy to make sure that its vision is the one which dominates the horizon.
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