Heartsease High could be like this

STEVE DOWNES The proposed £25m Open Academy to replace Heartsease High in Norwich is being met with a mixture of excitement and exasperation. At the moment, however, it is nothing more than an idea: no artist’s impressions, nothing tangible to focus on. In a bid to join some of the dots, education correspondent STEVE DOWNES took a trip to Kent to see one of the government’s flagship academies in operation.

STEVE DOWNES

Marlowe Academy in Ramsgate does not look like a school.

With its bright yellow outer wall and space-age design, it could be a continental college campus or a scientific research HQ.

Inside, it is even more disconcert-ing. High schools tend to have an austere, slightly intimidating feel to them. But Marlowe is light, bright, airy and even inspiring.

With a cavernous central atrium and futuristic raised metallic walkways, it crushes school design convention.

But so it should. After all, much to the fury of critics, academies benefit from the sugar-daddy support of the government.

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Marlowe Academy was built in the school field of the Ramsgate School, which was once at the very bottom of the table in England for the percentage of 16-year-olds getting five or more A*-C GCSEs - just 5pc, compared with the national average of more than 50pc.

For a year the academy was based in the old school while the new building was developed. Then, in September 2006, the students and staff moved into the £27m facility.

The £27m comprised £1m each from sponsors Kent County Council and Roger de Haan, the former owner of Saga Holidays - plus another £25m from the government, which sees academies as the way to drag downbeat communities up by the bootstraps. For many, the new school symbolises a new dawn.

For no matter how well it did, Ramsgate School would probably always have struggled to emerge from the shadow of its inauspicious history.

On the basis of pure pupil numbers, the Marlowe Academy's supporters will argue that the change has been a success. When Ramsgate School closed, it had 450 students. The academy was launched with 560 students on roll, and it will have 750 from September.

Results have also improved, from the rock-bottom 5pc to 20pc of youngsters getting five or more A*-C GCSEs including maths and English. The ambitious target, according to principal Ian Johnson, is for the academy to reach the national average in a "few years".

Mr Johnson said: "Local people had turned their back on the school. It was populated by all the pupils in Thanet who didn't get their first choice school. It ended up as a self-selecting sink school."

Interestingly, the academy includes a public library, which Marlowe youngsters have access to during the day and people from the community can use through traditional opening hours.

Mr Johnson said "all" the academy's facilities doubled up as community facilities, and outside users already included churches, a stage school and adult education.

While I was there, a group of adults was learning basic English and maths in one of the classrooms.

Mark Holmes, from nearby Newington, went to the old Ramsgate School. He said: "It was just a tower block with a load of cabins. I know the shape's a bit weird now, but it's excellent."

Talking to the academy students and some of the visitors, there is a sense that many in the community are still coming to terms with what has been a momentous change.

They may not have loved Ramsgate School, but it was what they were used to. Mr Johnson is confident that they are being won over.

He said: "Things had got so bad that people were saying it wasn't going to work or it was a waste of money. But it does work."

He added: "We are giving students the confidence to go for it. There was quite a lot of security in going to Ramsgate School because you were expected to fail. But when your school changes you are challenged to be successful."

For youngsters who watch the clock, the academy may not be for them. For the school day runs from 8.30am to 5pm for all pupils. It is a snapshot of the government's ideal of extended schools and wrap-around services.

The upside of the long day is that all homework is completed on site during the school day - solving the problem of poor self-motivation or families who don't have the space or computer equipment to assist their children.

Teacher Steven Rose, was a pupil at Cunningham School, which became Ramsgate School, then a teacher at both Ramsgate School and now Marlowe Academy.

He said: "At Ramsgate School we got no respect, no support, nothing. It was an absolute shambles.

"Ian has transformed it with a relaxed attitude and by talking to parents and staff. The school is based on praise, praise, praise."

Marlowe Academy has certainly had a big impact on Ramsgate and some of its children.

Those with a vision for the Open Academy in Norwich may benefit from a fact-finding visit to Kent.

For those who are opposed to academies, however, it is unlikely to change their view - that the academies programme is producing a new level of haves and have-nots as the cherished comprehensive education system is stealthily dismantled.