Thetford Academy turns a corner as pupils and staff look ahead

Thetford Academy was established only last year and has already been through its fair share of difficulties. REBECCA GOUGH spoke to its principal, Thetford-born Cathy Spillane, about turning a corner – and the Thetfordians of the future.

This year was always going to be telling for the Thetford Academy, an amalgamation of the town's two former high schools, Rosemary Musker and Charles Burrell, which opened its doors in September last year.

Things looked bright back then as plans were mooted to locate the 1,300 pupils on three campuses, incorporating a new forum on Bridge Street as part of the town's regeneration plans.

But, in April this year, a decision was taken to move all pupils from the South Campus to North Campus, on Croxton Road, by 2013, following a shortfall in government funding which meant it had to abandon plans to spread across the three sites.

Just weeks later principal Christine Carey was forced to resign due to ill health and it was only in July this year that acting head Cathy Spillane was appointed as new principal.

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Shortly afterwards the academy's first set of exam results showed 28pc of students achieved a GCSE A*-C pass rate, while 51pc achieved A*-E.

A Levels resulted in a pass rate of 60pc from A* to C, and 100pc from A* to E.

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But the new principal is determined to turn things around. As she puts it, if she can't, the government will put in a team who can.

'The whole run-up to the academy was very compressed and we were on a very tight time-frame because we wanted to get the money and then the general election came in the middle of it,' she said.

'We were managing two schools and hadn't merged the offices and back room staff, and we had other issues. In one way I think the staff and students and parents went through a grieving process for the two schools.

'There was so much anger at first about the academy forming. The fact students weren't achieving in the two schools seemed to mean nothing. I think now we're in the process of acceptance.

'This is year zero. Last year was the year we should have had in the run-up to the academy – we would normally have had support staff and the principal in place but none of that work was done. Now we're team Thetford.'

First on the list is improving exam reults which is 'non-negotiable', according to the principal.

'To be able to do that we have to provide really good quality teachers. The big push is with maths – this is the key to unlocking it all,' she said.

And the academy appears to be on the right path, coming on leaps and bounds since pupils and staff returned for a new school year in September.

Second on the list is to spend a pot of �18.2m of government funding on a new building on the North Campus.

Talks are currently going on with two contractors for work to begin as soon as possible and plans are ambitious. The new building will have facilities including a sports hall which will be open to the community, an assembly hall, multi-use games area, dance and fitness studios and even an outdoor amphitheatre. Classrooms will be a 'good size' full of natural light and with good acoustics.

A new sixth form centre will aim to give younger years something to aspire to and feature social and study areas, an internet caf�, and eventually offer more vocational courses.

Mrs Spillane believes this will go some way to helping pupils not only achieve their best but consider staying in the town, post education.

'Businesses want people at that high tech level and if we attract young people and the local businesses employ them it will improve the town,' she said. 'It also means an educated group of Thetfordians will be able to argue for what they want in the town in a better way.

'These are Thetfordians of the future who can really change the town. It's Thetford today and the world tomorrow.'

There has already been a shift towards an academy mentality and 17 new members of staff have been hired. Among these are three Canadian maths teachers, who Mrs Spillane hopes can engage youngsters in the subject.

This, she believes, will also help raise the aspirations of the pupils, something she sees as a particular problem. In keeping with this, every year 11 pupil has also had a personal interview with a member of staff, with year 10s to follow.

'Our first issue is to stop pupils bleeding out,' she said. 'We need to keep Thetford children in Thetford and to have the parents feel they can trust us.

'There have been years of under-achievement but we have to put that to one side and look at the children and see what they're capable of.

'In both previous schools there was some super teaching but I think there were issues of low self-esteem and low aspirations and children feeling like they couldn't do it.

'There's also a skills deprivation in Thetford which goes hand-in-hand with low self-esteem but it's not insurmountable.

'On both sites maths has been a problem. English results have always been solid but maths isn't as good and until maths is able to replicate that we won't reach the full target.'

Mrs Spillane credits part of her success, and most of her drive and determination, to being born and bred in Thetford itself.

'We can't stand it when we feel other people are telling us how the town should be, or have control,' she said.

'The nice thing about coming from Thetford is nobody can say I've come from outside with fancy ideas or say 'what do you know?'.

'I think the responsibility weighs heavily on me. I see this as a big responsibility because I want to get it right for the children and the school and I want to get it right for the town. Being from Thetford, I don't want to do anything which won't make the community proud – I do feel I'm enjoying it more this term though. The new year sevens are lovely children and the parents of Thetford should be really proud.'

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