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Last Updated: Friday, 5 September, 2003, 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK
Academy makes a hi-tech new start
By Gary Eason
BBC News Online education editor

Year 7 children
The 11 year olds thought their new school "amazing"
If the look of a building says anything, the new Walsall Academy is shouting that it means business.

Its slanting steel rafters and sweeping interior vistas make it look more like a hi-tech business park than a secondary school.

Visitors entering through the automatic doors are confronted with the glass wall of the state-of-the-art computer-aided design learning area - the reception desk is off to one side.

It is all in keeping with the academy's emphasis on its specialist subject - technology - and work-orientated approach.

On the first day of the new school year the teachers are crackling with enthusiasm.

"It's very exciting. I can't wait to get started," said Marie-Louise Foster, who teaches business studies and information and communication technology (ICT).

Walsall, in the West Midlands, is one of the nine new "city academies" opening in England this month.

State-maintained independent schools set up with the help of outside sponsors, they are the government's latest attempt to drive up standards by replacing failing schools in struggling education authorities.

Walsall Academy has been built at a cost of 17m on the site of the former TP Riley school.

Marie-Louise Foster
Marie-Louise Foster: raring to go
Ms Foster has just qualified as a teacher. She did her teaching practice in "rough local education authority comprehensives".

She did not know the Bloxwich area of Walsall when she applied for the job, but was attracted by the idea of teaching in a brand new school.

"And I had heard a lot about Thomas Telford and I thought that was amazing, and I wanted to be part of it," she said.

Thomas Telford city technology college in Shropshire is one of the sponsors of the new Walsall Academy.

It has made such a success of selling its online course in information technology to other schools it could put 1m into Walsall - with another sister school planned for Sandwell.

science lab coats
The new lab coats were provided by the sponsors
The other sponsor is the Mercers' Company - the premier livery company or guild of the City of London, which has a long-established educational charity arm.

Walsall Academy's head teacher, Jean Hickman, was a deputy head at Thomas Telford.

She says Marie-Louise Foster is one of nine "very up-for-it" newly-qualified teachers among the 35 staff recruited so far.

But the buzz has also affected what she calls "us old fogies" on the senior management team.

The head of ICT, 53-year-old Peter Gostling, said he had been so excited at starting the term he had woken at 3am and not gone back to sleep.

business studies area
Walsall Academy's video technician Jon Lewis has made a short film to mark the opening

Like a number of the staff he has transferred from TP Riley. He said students' achievements there had risen at an exceptional rate recently but much of the improvement had been "cosmetic" and could not have been sustained.

"The fabric of the building was deteriorating. We moved out in three days in July and they demolished it."

Now he has an "awesome" new information technology system.

There are flat-screen computer terminals everywhere. Every classroom has an interactive whiteboard on which the teacher can draw, display learning materials - and call up stored video or live television pictures.

From his own terminal he can monitor what every student is doing and even take over their keyboard.

The entire curriculum is online. For the time being, the school is using Thomas Telford's curriculum while it develops its own.

Peter Gostling
Peter Gostling: impressed with the computer network
Jean Hickman stresses that her school will not be a clone but it is adopting many of the ideas about managing the longer day, week and year.

School starts at 8.30am and ends at 4pm - but there are only two learning sessions. So children might be doing humanities all morning and science for three hours in the afternoon - a wearying prospect.

"It's different to what we are used to," said Colleen, one of the Year 11 pupils who have transferred from TP Riley midway through their GCSE years.

"Only two lessons - it's boring."

Ms Foster accepts it will take a lot of getting used to, but has plans for them.

"I don't like my kids sitting around, I like to get them up and get give them a lot of games, getting them onto the practical side of it," she said.

"I think the three-hour slot will just go. They won't realise."

And Peter Gostling said there could be a frustration in short lessons, with a feeling that "you'd only just got started".

With the longer sessions he has time to record the progress of every single child - there are slots for this on the back of his lesson plan - and set individual targets for them.

Broader intake

It is sometimes said of a failing school that you can change everything - buildings, head teacher, staff - but the problem is you cannot change the sort of children who go there.

Jean Hickman
Jean Hickman is passionate about the potential of new technology
But the new academy's admissions policy allows it a wider catchment than TP Riley had.

"The previous intake here was very local in a very deprived area," Mrs Hickman said.

"They look smart in their new uniforms but as soon as they open their mouths you know exactly who has come from the not-so-socially aware area.

"We have still got about 90 of those but we have been able to bring in students from a wider socio-economic mix and the balance therefore is more comprehensive."

The engineering of this balance is done through an entrance test, designed by the National Foundation for Educational Research to tease out a range of abilities, ethnicity and social background.

"At the back of the school here over the fence" - Jean Hickman points across the playing field - "are huge housing estates with the most magnificent, expensive houses in.

"It's no more than a five-minute walk to that side of Lichfield Road" - in the other direction - "and you are in one of the most deprived areas of Walsall.

"The children from the top end were going out to the Staffordshire schools, being bussed out."


Now, though, she says the academy has attracted roughly a 50:50 mix.

There were 421 applicants for the 168 places on offer this year - raised to 192 because of the demand.

Why have parents taken the risk of sending their 11 year olds to an unknown school?

Hillary Williams-Minto and David Morris
Parents and pupils agree to adhere to the rules
Hillary Williams-Minto
It's like a breath of fresh air and a wonderful opportunity for the children
David Morris
David Morris was among those waiting at the gates at the end of the first day to see how his daughter had got on.

"The difficulty for us is that education in Walsall isn't that brilliant at the moment," he said.

"Most people don't live in a good school area. With this coming along it's like a breath of fresh air and a wonderful opportunity for the children to have a fresh start.

"We didn't think it could be any worse and there's a possibility it could be a lot better."

Another parent, Hillary Williams-Minto, was impressed by the new school's discipline code - rules had been sent home for all families to discuss and sign up to.

She said the children seemed to have got the message.

"They were tucking their shirts in this morning," she laughed.

Mr Morris added: "If you don't conform you are out. They are here to learn and we don't want them to be distracted from that by children who just don't want to learn."

Sixth formers

The head, Jean Hickman, also deemed it crucial to the success of the new school that it should have a thriving sixth form, not least because otherwise it was difficult to attract specialist teachers.

Provision was made for up to 150 to attend - somewhat over-optimistically, she felt. But not only had many signed up in advance, some were literally walking in off the street on the first day.

"I reckon we will make 110. Every school in Walsall has a sixth form so we are competing big time with our neighbours."

Children leaving school
There were no major hitches on the first day
Those who have come do not have to wear the school uniform but are required to "dress for the office".

"I was at TP Riley and I knew it was going to be different," said Nagina. "Some of the teachers were coming and they told us it was going to be more adult."

"We have to set the standard to make other people want to come here," added Charlotte.

One surprise was being put in a "personal tutor group" with younger children. Unlike most schools Walsall Academy has no form groups.

Instead children from years seven through to 13 are mixed together in groups of about 15, for a daily discussion of topical events.

The idea is it gives the older ones a sense of responsibility and the younger ones role models and mentors.

And the sixth formers realised that this is how things are in a workplace, where you rarely get to choose your colleagues.

Another striking difference from most schools is the absence of bells.

Instead, at the end of each learning session, a telephone rings in the study room and a member of the management team tells the students it is time to move on to their next appointment.


Walsall Academy has measurable targets: to match or better the national average test and exam results.

Jean Hickman's goals are to maximise the performance of every student but also to raise performance across the education authority by spreading good practice.

Every secondary school in the land deserves to have this infrastructure and this ICT provision
Head teacher, Jean Hickman
She would give all heads the sort of autonomy she has to try new ways of teaching and learning.

But she would also give them the same facilities.

"Every secondary school in the land deserves to have this infrastructure and this ICT provision - and it's not that expensive," she said.

"The money that's wasted in education, we could gut every school locally, bung it in and they would be away, they would fly."

Her belief is that if the "kiddies" are given the confidence to master the basic Three Rs by being supported by the technology, they can move on to greater things in every subject.

"It should be automatic. The children should be able to be taught in a hi-tech environment.

"This is the 21st Century. We are not going to move forward as a country unless we provide for all our schools - focus the money where we know it can make a difference.

"Everybody should have the opportunity of coming here."

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