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So what's all this about an all-through academy?

Tuesday, 6th April 2010.

The Government decision to approve making Castle Manor Business and Enterprise College into the latest of a select group of less than 30 academies nationwide has raised more questions than it has answered.

Much of what it means for Haverhill and for Castle Manor, and how it will be implemented, is still undecided.

But if anyone knows the answers to any of these questions it must be the driving force behind the whole project, Castle Manor head Madeleine Vigar, so Haverhill-UK News editor David Hart has been along to quizz her about it.

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Madeleine Vigar makes no bones about it - she is a woman on a mission to move education in Haverhill into the 21st century.

She arrived in 2003 to take over a school that was in trouble on a variety of fronts - not least educationally - but it did not take her long to form a view about the best way forward.

Since then, in parallel with turning the school around to such a degree that for the last two years it has been among the top 200 most improved in the country, she has been pursuing her aim of bringing all-through education to Haverhill.

There was an opportunity to choose all-through education as one of the options in the Schools Organisation Review going on in Suffolk, which began in Haverhill in 2005.

At that time the concept was new and schools were wary of it. But close links have been built up in the light of the transition from three-tier to two-tier education which came out of the SOR.

Ms Vigar is now also head of Castle Hill Middle, which will close under the changes, and there is considerable crossover of teaching between the schools.

When Parkway Middle closes, its buildings will be used by Castle Manor, which is surprisingly adjacent, for a temporary period.

A report on education in Suffolk by an expert, Graham Badman, last year, included a section on Haverhill and on Castle Manor in particular. He the highlighted social and demographic challenges which the school continues to face.

He recommended the all-through academy route, and the Government has approved the recommendation. He also recommended Ms Vigar be made the initial acting head of it and then confirmed when it opened.

This is unusual, the first of many unusual things about the case of Castle Manor.

Academies are defined as new, all-ability, state-funded schools established and managed by sponsors - which means sponsors in terms of governance, not finance.

In other words they become limited companies, with charitable status, and the sponsor - usually a large business - provides governors with business expertise.

The teachers are still commissioned and employed by the local authority.

What makes Castle Manor unusual is that becoming an academy is often a last resort for dealing with a failing school and starts with getting rid of the head.

In the case of Castle Manor, the school is currently a success story, and the head was so highly rated by Mr Badman, that he was afraid if she were to leave it might all collapse again.

He described the school's improvement as 'person-specific', and recommended she be made head of the new academy.

As it happens, Ms Vigar is not thinking of moving on anywhere else at present anyway. She has a strong Haverhill connection, as her grandfather was born in Crowland Road and she still has relatives in the town.

So what about all the unanswered questions - starting with: how's it going to work?

"Nothing is decided," said Ms Vigar. "I envisage Castle Manor and Castle Hill and a primary school or schools.

"It will give a seamless approach from five to 19s - I hope it will be three to 19s eventually, with the early years coming in.

"We have to move education into the 21st century. The world has changed very rapidly and we have to prepare young people to be very flexible. There won't be jobs for life or even for 20 years. It's quite possible they may have to get a new job overy year or two.

"I see two all-through schools as the way forward for Haverhill, probably soft-federated."

Soft federation means individual schools retain a large degree of independence within the all-through system.

Next question: when? The likely date is September 2011. The report envisaged earlier, but Ms Vigar says there are various legalities that have to be completed and will mean September 2011 is the earliest. But the transition will be almost invisible to begin with anyway.

Next question: where's the sponsor? The new acadamy will need a sponsor, and Ms Vigar says she would like the Co-op, with whom the school has strong links already, to do it, although there has been no indication from them so far.

Apart from the world of business, sponsors can come from other successful schools, colleges, universities or charities.

But Ms Vigar is adamant she wants a sponsor 'akin to our educational values'.

"This is a community school," she said, "and we have high aspirations for the community, and any sponsor must share that vision."

Next question: what about the primary schools? Involving the primary schools has also been a vital part of the project.

"I want the primary phase to lead the development of the curriculum," she said, "particularly with regard to reading and writing, because we have children who struggle with these areas."

But nothing is decided yet. The primary schools which feed to Castle Manor are Burton End, St Felix, Clements, Place Farm and New Cangle.

Next question: what about funding and resources? Suffolk County Council is pressing the Government for some clarity in this area. It is normal for academies to have a complete new build within three years.

This is what Ms Vigar ideally wants, but the estimated cost is around 35million, and the Government's statement talked about putting an extra 3million into the latest changes across the whole of Suffolk (which include another new academy, in Lowestoft).

"In the small print it does say there may be other money available," Ms Vigar points out hopefully.

When the middle schools close in 2011 Castle Manor will have to take on another 600 pupils, virtually doubling the size of the school.

There is accommodation available, because the school had over 1,500 in the 1970s before Samuel Ward was built.

But the county council asked the governors if they wanted a new year seven and eight block, and they turned it down because they thought it would push building a completely new school further down the line.

Instead, they went for a temporary solution, which was then overtaken by the offer of Parkway's buildings.

Ms Vigar explained confidently: "This is only for three years - until we get the new build."

A secure pathway between the sites will be created and the communications faculty of the school (drama, English, media, etc) will move to Parkway.

And the final question: will it work?

"I think all-through schools work in certain areas," said Ms Vigar. "But they have to have strategic vision, and the local authority has to have strategic vision also."

But she has spent more than five years working towards this goal because she believes in it.

"I am certain that this will secure even greater success for children, young people and families in our community," she said in her response to news of the Government approval.

Part of the 'strategic vision' will have to involve finding answers to the difficult questions and challenges ahead. But the road map is now established.

Haverhill Online News

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