A partnership of state, church and university is relaunching a school in a deprived area of Newcastle. But will it work? Chris Bunting reports.
Sprawled across a windswept hill high above the West End of Newcastle upon Tyne, All Saints College does a passing impression of a "bog standard" comprehensive school. The dramatic views from its lofty eyrie across the city into the rolling farmland of Northumberland and Durham do not quite fit the stereotype. And the rich swath of playing fields and parkland in which the school sits would be the envy of many a public school. But much else about the appearance of the place - the bleak, flat-roofed 1970s buildings, the streets outside its gates glistening with shattered car windows, the 15-year-old girl pushing a pram in the nearby shopping precinct - is just right for the role.
In fact, All Saints is one of the most exciting secondary schools in the country. Opening next week as part of an attempt to improve standards in an area where some schools have been failing their children for generations, it is being run as a partnership between the local council, the Church of England and, most originally, the University of Newcastle.
With £6.3 million in government cash to transform the old school buildings, inherited from its predecessor, West Denton High School, the "bog standard" appearance may soon be a thing of the past. The Church of England, which until now has had no direct involvement in running secondary schools in Newcastle, is heavily committed. But it is the link with the university that has raised most eyebrows. Academics from the university have pitched up in the All Saints' staffroom and have set up a permanent office on campus. University PGCE students are based there, and the university's education department is setting up a continuing professional development programme for the school's permanent teaching staff.
"That kind of work might be seen as an extension of the university's traditional role in teacher training for schools, but we are going further than that," says Nick Meagher, a senior research associate in the university's education department. "There will be university research based at the school."
All Saints' headteacher James Colquhoun anticipates research programmes run jointly by teachers and academics feeding directly into school policies. The school's decision to have 75-minute lessons, for instance, could be analysed and modified in response to monitoring its effect on pupils.
"The kind of thing we are looking at is making all of our teachers into teacher associates of the university. There will be direct computer access to university resources so research can be accessed directly when the curriculum is being developed," Colquhoun says.
While the university's involvement has been led by its education department, other faculties are getting involved. Only one of three university representatives on the school's governing body is an educationalist, the others come from its department of engineering and its medical school. Primary healthcare projects based at the school are in the pipeline and the university's information technology expertise is eagerly awaited. For Colquhoun, though, the most exciting dividend will not come from technical help, but from the mere presence of the university in the school.
"The pupils will be sitting down in the restaurant and beside them will be a second-year undergraduate. Every sixth-former in the school will have an undergraduate mentor on a one-to-one basis. It is these kind of links that we need so badly. It is breaking down barriers and building role models in an area where people have not necessarily in the past even thought about the possibility of going to university."
For John Appleby, a school governor from the university's department of engineering and mathematics, the size of the barriers to be overcome hit home during interviews for classroom assistants at the school.
"We were talking to people, most of them with local roots, and you look at their educational background and they have grade As at 16 and they had just dropped out. Our university just down the road had nothing to offer them."
But if the All Saints partnership is an opportunity for a university with low local admission rates to show that it is fully part of its city's community, and perhaps even get a few extra students in the process, the bravery of its decision to get involved in education in the West End of Newcastle should not be underestimated.
For the local education authority, the project represents probably the last throw of the dice in an area with a stubborn tradition of educational failure. Appleby puts it brutally: "This part of the city has not had a well-regarded secondary school in the past 20 to 30 years."
Of the two high schools and two middle schools closed to make way for a primary-secondary system with All Saints at its apex, both high schools had been branded failing by inspectors in recent years. Deprivation among pupils is way above the national average, and unemployment in the adult population is widespread.
All Saints is not the first attempt at a radical solution to the problem. The old Blakelaw School, across the A1 from the All Saints site, came to national prominence in 1998 when, after failing an inspection report, it became the first "Fresh Start" school in the country. Thousands of pounds were pumped into the rebranded and restaffed Firfield Community School, and television cameras were invited in to watch its transformation. Eighteen months later, its high-profile headteacher had quit and the school was still failing to meet performance targets. It finally emerged from "special measures" nine months before its closure.
West Denton High School, the previous school on the All Saints site, went in and out of special measures during the same period. By the end, it had only 400 pupils, a third of its original capacity. Its sixth form consisted of eight pupils doing one-year courses.
"When I first got here, I thought there was more than a whiff of the secondary modern about the old school," says Colquhoun. "The kids were being abandoned. They were being betrayed by us. Some of the things we are going to try in this school may not work, but we are damn well going to try."