Why I’d like to see academy – bishop

Academies have long been a hot topic nationally. Now, with the feasibility study underway for Norfolk's first £25m academy at Heartsease High in Norwich, the issue is causing a rumpus locally.

Academies have long been a hot topic nationally. Now, with the feasibility study underway for Norfolk's first £25m academy at Heartsease High in Norwich, the issue is causing a rumpus locally. One of the two sponsors, the BISHOP OF NORWICH, the RT REV GRAHAM JAMES, explains why he believes it is the “best option” for young people.

When I was at primary school (a long time ago!) life was dominated by the 11-plus. We had a teacher who threatened us with the local secondary modern school if we didn't do well.

I was fortunate. I passed. But I've never forgotten the tears of my friends when they failed. That's why I've always supported comprehensive schools. Everyone should have the chance to do well.

But still not everyone benefits. The schools which struggle are often found in poorer or disadvantaged areas. It's not fair.

This is why I support an academy for Heartsease. It would mean a big government investment in creating a new school in an area needing regeneration. And we can preserve all that's best from the present school.

Under the strong and imaginative leadership of its present head teacher, Heartsease High has made considerable progress. Its engineering specialism would carry over into the academy. So too would its exemplary care for students with special educational needs.

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But over 40pc of all secondary pupils in the Heartsease area choose to go (or their parents choose for them to go) to another school.

It's hard for a school to be at the heart of community life if so many families are not part of it.

An academy at Heartsease can keep what's excellent and could also enable a fresh start and new thinking.

The governors of Heartsease High voted by a large majority last year to support a feasibility study and that study has now begun. But some people seem determined to oppose the academy without listening to the arguments.

Others assume there are secret plans somewhere with all the details of the future academy already agreed. They don't exist. The feasibility study is undertaking that work and the community is actively involved in developing the plans.

There are, however, some fundamental principles to which my co-sponsor Graham Dacre and I are both committed.

The admissions policy will not be based on any form of selection by academic achievement, faith or gender. Priority will be given to those living near the school so that it's emphatically a community academy.

Academies don't exist to create an academic elite but to give more life chances to young people often denied them.

We believe the school will prosper from having a Christian ethos. How's that expressed?

Listen to the views of the pupils at Heartsease High and the feeder middle schools. They were consulted recently. These pupils were elected by their peers. They wanted a school where the students were treated like adults, and where everyone was valued as an individual.

They wanted a school where there was no bullying, which was caring and fair to everyone (though they realised that didn't mean treating everyone the same, since some pupils required more help).

A 2000-year-old sound-bite sums this up - “Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.” That's the bedrock of a Christian ethos. Without self-respect, young people (and adults too) fail to respect their neighbours. I find young people are often much more spiritually aware than many adults.

Opponents of academies often claim they've been places where creationism is taught. Since I'm a patron of the Charles Darwin Trust, promoting scientific education, I'm a rather unlikely sponsor of creationist teaching. Religious education in the academy would follow the Norfolk agreed syllabus.

The plan is to promote environmental science alongside engineering as a further specialism of the academy. The education design team is working very closely with Dick Palmer, the principal of Norwich City College, a firm supporter of the academy, and others to develop new learning opportunities.

More than that, the environment would provide an integrating theme across the academy as a whole. We are increasingly conscious of the threats to our planet, young people especially so. An environmental dimension can be reflected in an innovative teaching programme.

What's more, there are increasing numbers of environmentally-related jobs. Our aim is also to create a building incorporating the best we can of good environmental design, though, if approved, the academy would probably start in the existing buildings.

The projected growth in pupil numbers in north Norwich means that a revitalised Heartsease would not have an adverse affect on neighbouring schools.

An academy with fresh learning options, especially in the sixth form, would enhance the partnership with Sprowston High and Blyth-Jex and lead to benefits all round.

Sponsors of academies are not sole proprietors. Over 50 people are already involved in the various groups planning the academy.

Graham Dacre and I have worked closely with children's services to ensure the local authority is fully supportive and to integrate the academy into the overall provision of good education.

Norfolk County Council is ambitious for our young people and keen to work with a great variety of partners. The churches in the Heartsease area already engage in exemplary work with young people on the estate and those living round it.

They do so because they believe in young people themselves. So do we.

There are always good reasons for putting off investment in the future of our young people, whether it's the possibility of a unitary authority in Norwich or fear of change.

For once, let's have the imagination to do the best thing for the best reasons.

t In Friday's EDP - two Norfolk teaching union leaders outline the reasons why they think the Heartsease plan is wrong. And in Saturday's EDP, education correspondent Steve Downes gives the background to academies and weighs up the two arguments.