Spreading the academy message

By Katherine Roberts
BBC News

Image caption,
Mrs Sparling is excited about teachers being given more freedoms

Nestled in the hills surrounding Bath, with horses roaming freely outside, sits Oldfield School.

It is a wonderful setting but not a terribly attractive set of buildings.

The girls' secondary school is a hotchpotch of structures, most dating from the 1950s.

It is the first thing the head teacher Kim Sparling would change when this state school becomes an academy in September. It has already been given approval for this change in status.

Pride in the school's success is pretty evident everywhere you look.

Stuck to walls in the hallway are quotes from the last Ofsted report: "An outstanding school" says one.

Another says the "spiritual, moral, social and cultural education permeates the life and work of the school".

Upstairs in the learning centre, a class of girls are delivering a prepared talk.

Afterwards they are judged by the other students on how well they have done. Their confidence is striking.

Last year 87% of girls here got five good GCSEs. It is the top performing state school in Bath and North East Somerset.

Extra money

When it becomes an academy, Mrs Sparling wants more children to come here.

"Parents want to send their children to a successful school and we basically promise each child that when they come to this school something magical is going to happen - and actually the magic works."

Mrs Sparling is also keen to free the school from local government control.

"It's not a criticism of the local authority but we as a school obviously know our students best.

Image caption,
With the extra money comes the possibility of more facilities

She says that in the past the school would have received directives about new initiatives from the education department if not every day, every week.

If the new government's education bills become law, that could change.

"If we don't want to do the national curriculum we don't have to do it, if we want to cut the national curriculum, make it smaller, we can.

"If we want to add additional subjects, we can."

Blazer and tie

The head wants to offer a wider selection of qualifications at her school - something that the extra resources that come with becoming an academy would allow.

And what about that extra money?

"At the moment local authorities keep back about 10% to 15% to provide services," she says.

"But of course we don't necessarily see all of that money and therefore in this school, with about a budget of £4m, that would mean £400,000.

"The value of those services we are currently getting is probably £20,000 to £30,000.

"You can imagine - we are thinking we're going to have a lot of extra money and inevitably that's helpful."

This year, money constraints meant that students at Oldfield could not choose drama GCSE as an option.

Only eight girls wanted to do the subject and they needed 14 to make the course financially viable.

With the extra money the course probably would have gone ahead.

Image caption,
Academy status opens up more course options for these two pupils

The idea of becoming an academy is exciting for the girls too.

One of the first things students would like to do is swap the school's sweatshirt for a blazer and tie.

The head says she would consider the change because the extra money would pay for those on free school meals to buy the new uniform.

Mrs Sparling helps schools in the area through her role as a National Leader of Education.

It is a condition of Oldfield becoming an academy that she continues her work to help other schools improve.

And about this part of her job, she is almost evangelical.

"If we are doing something well we should be sharing it with other schools and certainly my staff really enjoy it.

"And it's a two way process: they also come back with new ideas, we see it as a win win situation.

For Mrs Sparling plans to allow more schools to become Academy status are a welcome change.

Mrs Sparling clearly cannot wait for the seismic shift to her school.

She says: "Was I listening correctly, did politicians admit that they are not the experts on education?

"This is a breath of fresh air."

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