Accounts of the battle of parents to secure a place for their child at their preferred school hit the press year after year. Shortages in school places, coupled with competition to get in to the most “popular schools” and growth in population, means that, in many areas, schools and Local Authorities face an annual challenge to manage demand and expectations.
Bradford is just one of many areas which has seen considerable growth with a population bulge filtering through primary and now impacting on secondary provision.
Back in 2013 Bradford Council set out to tackle this problem by successfully bidding for a new secondary school, to provide additional places for pupils in the City. The close partnership between Bradford Diocesan Academies Trust (BDAT) and the Council resulted in the opening of Bradford Forster Academy this September, but the journey to opening was not without challenge and required huge amounts of collaborative hard work.
Since 2010, Bradford Council has been keeping pace with rising primary pupil numbers through a programme of managed expansion. However, opening a brand new academy under the Department for Education (DfE) Targeted Basic Need scheme in partnership with an Academy Chain was a completely new type of project. It required trust between the LA and the sponsor and a joint determination to be ready for opening.
It was August 2013 before Bradford Council won the funding to open this £12.5 million secondary school in central Bradford. By December that year they had recommended to the DfE their preferred Academy partner, the local Church of England Diocesan Trust, selected through a competitive tender. The remit was to develop a 1,050 place secondary school ready for opening in September 2015. The Academy would open with a year 7 cohort and grow to full capacity over 5 years. This was no small challenge – in less than 24 months, the school needed to be built, staff needed to be recruited and pupils needed to be ready and on roll.
During the project, fruitful partnerships developed between the Council, the Local Education Partnership (LEP), Wates Group (the main contractor) and BDAT. Further expert advice and support was also provided by the Diocese, and neighbouring secondary schools, Bradford Academy and Immanuel College helped in areas such as recruiting the new Principal, ethos development and planning the curriculum. As the Diocesan Trust had only supported primary academies prior to the opening of Forster, the educational and operational expertise of Bradford Academy in particular provided critical additional support for the project.
The hard work, commitment and shared purpose of all those involved was the key success factor in getting the school ready for opening. Of Particular note was the strong relationship between the academy chain and the Local Authority – a relationship which sometimes, at least according to the national press, can be a source of contention. This project saw no such discord with all parties setting their potential differences aside to ensure the school was built and resourced to the very highest standards.
That is not to say the project was not without challenge, especially due to the tight timeline between the funding announcement and opening. From day one, significant decisions needed to be made very quickly and a number of hurdles had to overcome that threatened to delay or jeopardise the project. However one of the most animated early debates focussed on the name of the school. The Academy actually had three proposed names during the first quarter of 2014 with Bradford Forster Academy finally being the name that was settled on., The history behind this name is that William Forster who worked in Bradford and was elected as an MP in 1861, introduced the first Education Act which introduced the universal right to education for all children between 5 and 13 and the requirement for religious education within schools. This choice reflects the importance of education, the Church and the community of Bradford.
The build process progressed quite smoothly, from the cutting of the first sod of earth and ground blessing in May 2014, through to July 2015 when the building was handed over to the Academy Trust who oversaw the ICT installation and delivery of furniture ready for opening. The build was completed on time and within the budgeted figure of £12.5 million – a price tag almost half that of other regional new school projects and certainly considerably less than schools set up under the PFI and BSF programmes.
Money was very carefully managed throughout to ensure the school was equipped and ready for opening and delivery. This approach remains critical to ensure that, by 2018, when year 10 students start to be accepted, the key stage 4 equipment requirements are met. Despite the funding limitations, the school is in a great position and boasts amongst other strengths, an impressive new indoor sports facility available for community use.
Ironically, the final challenge that the school faced was getting pupils signed up and on roll for the September 2015 opening. Asking parents to send their child to a new school without a proven track record or a finished building and without a full staff is a big ask when they need to make their decision twelve months before opening. The problem was further exacerbated by not getting the funding agreement from the Secretary of State until spring 2015, which was after the admissions window had closed. This meant the Academy was not included in the local area admission publicity. The school did however attract a healthy year seven cohort, thanks largely to the collaboration with neighbouring primary schools and to the generosity of Bradford Academy again, who hosted and supported much of the admissions process.
On September 7th 2015, Bradford Forster Academy opened its doors for the first time to 140 year 7 students from over a dozen different Bradford primary schools. Filled with excitement and perhaps a few nerves, these young people were the first pupils to enrol at the new academy and the first cohort who will help to further shape its design, ethos and vision.
For those of you thinking of opening a new school, my advice would be not to underestimate the huge workload and the level of challenge involved. Collaboration and a shared common purpose is absolutely key to success. Bradford Forster Academy is a school set up to provide high quality education and all-round support for future generations of Bradford’s children. The benefit that this school will bring to the children and the community is worth its weight in gold.
Carol Dewhurst, Chief
Academies Trust www.bdat-academies.org
(Photo credit: Academy Magazine)
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