A partnership between Newcastle University and a local school is aiming to raise the aspirations of pupils from deprived areas. Ross Davies reports.
What happens when a university takes a hand in running a secondary school? Two years ago, All Saints School opened to public fanfare in the inner-city district of West Denton in Newcastle. The "fresh start" secondary school, which replaced two failing schools, has 1,100 pupils and is run by a partnership of the local city council, the Anglican diocese and Newcastle University. The Department for Education and Skills has invested more than £6 million in revamped school buildings and is keen to see the partnership hailed as a success story.
The reason for the university's involvement is, among other things, to encourage pupils from a deprived area to progress to higher education, and to encourage school and university staff to engage in practical research projects. It all sounds innovative and exciting, and indeed the school has received a good Ofsted report, but things have not gone as smoothly as planned. This is partly due to staff changes - there have been two principals and one acting principal in two years - and the fact that the school is still partly a building site.
But it appears to be on course now, with the appointment of David Scott as principal this year. The 56-year-old Northumbrian has, for the past 16 years, been head of the technology-based Calder High School at Mythholmroyd, near Hebden Bridge. He wants to develop the university link.
"I think this is exciting and innovative and has tremendous potential. In the community the school serves, there's not a tradition of pupils aiming high and looking to university and lifelong learning." He continues:
"Newcastle can help tremendously to raise aspirations, demystify higher education and root out the feeling that 'university's not for us'."
His impression is that the university means business in entering a partnership with the school, but he adds that there is "lots of room for further engagement with the university and much closer working relationships". In particular, Scott means to achieve a "really close" working relationship between the two staffs that will help staff development. "I'd also like to see that relationship foster research into successful learning, and what encourages youngsters to move on to further and higher education."
When All Saints was launched, Newcastle University planned to set up a "base" in the school, "where lecturers and researchers will aid curriculum development, deliver teacher training and oversee projects such as development of a management information system". Research projects were also promised.
John Appelby, one of the school's governors, admits: "The general message is that we haven't got as far with the university link as we had hoped.
Some positive things are happening, but they're still developing."
The university has yet to develop a physical "base" on site. However, last year eight university students tutored All Saints pupils, and four acted as mentors. Other students have been assisting the school's teachers. The students come from education and other disciplines - some are volunteers, others are working for course credits.
Two years ago, there was talk of university research being based at All Saints and of programmes being run jointly by teachers and academics. All teachers were to become "teacher associates" of the university and have direct computer access to university resources so research could be accessed directly during curriculum development. That is some way off, but senior staff do have "honorary" status, giving them computer access as well as admission to the university library, a freedom also available to junior staff.
Appelby says: "The amount of university research based at the school is limited so far. There is some collaborative work in the practical training of the teaching of mathematics, although that's more teacher training than researcher training." This academic year will also see all the school's teachers making an "action research" proposal, then carrying it out in the classroom, "rather than an academic researcher just observing things". The action research proposal will constitute a module within the university's master of education course.
The status of All Saints as a university "incubator" is still in the development stage, and a place that has been a building site for most of its new life is clearly not an ideal hatching ground. But the university says it wants to develop the link, and in Scott the school has a principal who is evidently keen to encourage progress in an area of Newcastle where secondary education has lagged and, with it, aspiration towards higher education and lifelong learning.