As part of our growing commitment to the younger element of our society and support for programs that focus on the transition from school/college into life/work, I met with Lorna Coldicote, Principal of the brand new Milton Keynes Academy.
The first thing that struck me about the Academy, apart from the impressive new building, bright interiors and unique layout, was the polite behaviour of the pupils and the friendliness of the welcoming staff. I attended the day following the official visit by the Duke of Kent but in no way did it feel like I followed “the Lord Mayors show”!!
Lorna has always been in the education system and confessed to wanting to be a teacher from as early as she could remember.
“I liked standing at the front and telling people about things. Telling became teaching. I have not been able to do as much classroom work as I have in the past but I hope to get back into that environment soon”. A true teacher through and through I feel. The Academy is her 3rd headship, having previously worked in multi-ethnic and “working class estate” environments.
The Academy’s is the result of new Governmental initiatives and works closely with it’s single sponsor, EDGE. Lorna confirmed that the intention of the Academy and herself is to create a place where pupils can study, develop and have fun. Additionally, the extended curriculum provides a special focus on enterprise so that local children are given all the skills and encouragement they need to succeed in work and life. This innovative and special emphasis on enterprise allows pupils to learn essential skills for future life such as teamwork, problem solving and creative thinking.
Edge is an independent charity that has a vision of an education system that offers young people options to suit their individual talents and serves Britain better by producing the skills employers need. The Academy will put ‘learning by doing’ at the forefront of the curriculum without sacrificing academic achievement. It should be noted, however, that there is a huge emphasis on high academic and personal achievement, with extra support for talented and gifted students, and those needing extra help.
“We can use our Academy independence to do things differently – and do things better.”
The Academy has pretty much the same targets, requirements and curriculum as most state schools and colleges but the independent status allows it to be more innovative. Examples of this are:
* Students have a 30-hour week (it’s usually 24-25 hours). This means that over the school year they have an extra six weeks of learning. They will be in school from 8.30am-3.35pm.
* six week terms with a shorter summer holiday and a two week break in the Autumn.
* extra time on Maths and English. Every day students spend the equivalent of an hour each on literacy and numeracy.
* Lessons will be up to two hours long, which means students will be able to become absorbed in projects rather than wasting time by moving from class to class.
* Lessons are structured carefully to make sure that there are a variety of activities and that students stay focused.
* Students take their SATS exams at the end of Year 8, rather than at the end of Year 9.
* Children are encouraged to stay on at school to do their homework and join in extra activities.
* The school is open until 6.30pm.
* The library is stocked with more than 13,000 books.
* The school has been designed to have several ‘learning villages’ so there are smaller areas within the bigger school.
* And of course there is a special Enterprise Hub, working with the support of local employers.
It is these innovations that give the Academy it’s edge (pardon the pun|!). It operates with the same targets and standards but aims to deliver improved results; sentiments reflected by Lorna herself. “Raising expectations provides me with the greatest reward.” As a leader Lorna is well aware of the requirements to run an efficient organization but sees her role having even further impact; “We intend to make a difference to the whole community; we see the Academy as having a social role and see our social responsibility as a given. Education makes a difference to the chances you get in life.”
The values of the Academy reflect this thinking;
* friendly. We create an atmosphere that is unpretentious, where students feel at ease and are able to be themselves.
* inclusive. Students, staff, parents, governors and the community as a whole are welcomed and enjoy being part of the Academy.
* personal. We work closely to encourage and support all students to achieve personal, academic and vocational skills.
* innovative. we work closely within the community and develop relationships with local businesses, students will benefit from commercial reality.
To further extend the influence of the Academy within it’s community, it offers it’s excellent facilities to local people outside school hours. This includes the Enterprise Hub, offerered to the local community and businesses for meetings, celebrations and events. “We have a slightly different ethos to traditional schools; our intention is to serve the kids and the community and lead them to future success. Generally, so far, the feedback has been very positive. The kids seem to appreciate the environment and we want to make the proud to wear the blazer.”
I asked about the latest trend in schools to remove the competitive element from the curriculum. I had a particular concern here as, like it or not, the real world of business and enterprise thrives on competition and it cannot be ignored nor removed from everyday life. “We retain competition in our work and classes. We do not have the traditional “house” system but our pupils are not guarded from competitive activities. Thanks to this wonderful building we provide internal “villages” for the children to return to. This gives them a feeling of association and belonging which provides familiarity security for them.” Remembering my old-school days of different coloured ties and manically-aggressive “house masters” I genuinely appreciate the subtleties of the innovation!
The students are positively encouraged to get involved with community projects as part of their studies, for instance, where there are elderly or disabled people who would appreciate help.
Undoubtedly one of the more intriguing aspects of the Academy is the Enterprise Hub and what it terms a ‘Business and Enterprise Specialism’. “We believe passionately in the importance of vocational education, that is, in giving students the opportunity to develop skills that will be important to them after they finish here. We believe there are many paths to success, and that one of the best ways to learn is by ‘doing’. We have decided that the best way to achieve this is through our Enterprise specialism.”
It is intended that this focus enables the Academy to develop links with a wide range of local employers, who can then provide exciting and interesting real life examples to students as part of their learning experience. This can be as varied as employers coming in to the Academy to share their real life experiences, through to giving students greater opportunities to see and sample many more different types of employer, so that they can make well informed choices.
Equally, the Academy through this specialism, is seeking to ensure that students have many interesting opportunities to become enterprising and resourceful, skills that will remain with them when Milton Keynes Academy is but a distant memory!
It is clear to me that the values of the Head are very much in line with those of her employers. She sees herself very much as a “touchstone” for the values of the school and the community at large intending to provide a higher symbolism so that the community connects with the Academy in far greater and more meaningful ways than did it’s predecessor schools. “There is possibly an increased pressure felt by some of the staff due to the higher profile and large financial investment”.
But I held the impression that this was not a major concern to Lorna. Her calm and eminently practical nature came across right through our discussions and I feel that the powers-that-be have recognised this jewel in their system and made a canny choice of Head to lead their new venture.
I would like very much to thank Lorna, her staff and pupils for the courtesy shown to me and especially to Lorna herself for giving me some of her time. In a maelstrom of children and bells I felt welcome and comfortable. Many thanks.
I hope that we can continue and develop our connection with Lorna and the Academy and very much look forward to a return visit in the future to see how things are progressing – particularly with the Enterprise Hub and the development of business and life skills within the students and the community in which they develop.