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Cofounder of Norfolk’s first academy says ‘disaster school’ was transformed by change, 10 years on

PUBLISHED: 12:28 29 January 2018 | UPDATED: 16:52 29 January 2018

Open Academy in Norwich, formerly Heartsease High School.

Open Academy in Norwich, formerly Heartsease High School.

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Over the last decade, education has been overhauled. In the first of a series of features looking at 10 years of academies in Norfolk, Lauren Cope revisits the school which brought the movement to our borders.

Picture of Open Academy from 2008. Picture: Angela SharpePicture of Open Academy from 2008. Picture: Angela Sharpe

A decade ago, Norfolk was yet to welcome its first academy.

Heartsease High School was due to become Open Academy in a matter of months, a divisive decision which pushed the county’s education into uncharted territory.

Since then, the tide has well and truly turned – today, at least 182 out of the county’s 424 schools are academies, 43pc, with 85pc of secondaries having made the change.

The number has grown by 51pc in the last 18 months – in April last year, 120 of Norfolk’s schools were academies.

Previous coverage of Open Academy's conversion.Previous coverage of Open Academy's conversion.

It comes after major academy operators around the country revealed financial concerns, with several warning over the pressure on pay and mounting deficits - concerns likely to place further scrutiny on the academies system.

But where each conversion was once met with outcry, today they can go without much of a fuss - and some of our earliest academies are now being rebrokered in new deals.

Ten years ago, it was two men who pioneered the movement in Norwich by creating Open – businessman and philanthropist Graham Dacre and the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James.

Mr Dacre, who was made a CBE in 2013 for his services with young people, said that, at the time, much of the work was persuading those who remained unconvinced by the movement.

The conversion was hugely divisive – concerns over the founders’ religious backgrounds, what would happen to the school and transparency mounted. “Bishop Graham and I were totally distrusted in our motives and we had to push it through all the way,” Mr Dacre said.

“It was a challenging process. We had to persuade – and we were largely unsuccessful at the time – the parents, and we also dealt with some political resistance, so we had to promote what we believed in with confidence and be resolute. I remember one night we had been to a public event, and we came back and said we had never imagined it would be so difficult.”

But he said, 10 years on, it had proved worthwhile.

“The students have benefited, the area has benefited and the county has benefited,” he said. “We turned a disaster school into one that is highly admired. It has made sure the young people of Heartsease are not the underdogs.”

Ian Gibson. Picture: Denise BradleyIan Gibson. Picture: Denise Bradley

Of those objecting, Ian Gibson, then Norwich North MP, was among the more high-profile.

He often questioned those in charge on the benefits of the change, demanding evidence.

“There was no evidence to show what it would really do in terms of improving the school system,” he said.

“The argument was that having an academy would improve education – but I asked where the evidence for that came from, when countries like Finland, where there is a more comprehensive education system, tended to do much better. There was none.”

And Mr Gibson said his views remained the same today.

“Still, today, I have seen no proof that academies change education for the better – it is about making money. It inevitably introduces money into the education system.”

In 2013, when Mr Dacre stepped down from the school, it was taken over by the Diocese of Norwich Education and Academies Trust (DNEAT), a rapidly expanding trust which had been founded earlier that year.

Today, the school – the only secondary in the trust, surrounded by more than 30 primaries – is on the brink of another new chapter.

Heartsease High School. Picture: Bill SmithHeartsease High School. Picture: Bill Smith

Late last year, principal Jon Platten announced he would be stepping down, now replaced by acting principal Betsy Fowler.

Looking forward, Mrs Fowler said priorities for the year were to ensure every student moves onto their chosen next step – be it the academy’s sixth form, university or employment.

And, after the government listed Open as one of more than 350 schools it classed as underperforming after this year’s GCSEs, she said: “We are confident that standards will show big improvements when students come to their GCSEs this summer.”

She said the “wealth of opportunities” available to school students was a strength of the school, and praised its strong leadership and specialist teachers.

Previous coverage of Open Academy's conversion.Previous coverage of Open Academy's conversion.

When asked if there were any major changes on the school’s horizon – a change of trust, or leadership, for example – DNEAT did not answer, but said, with Mrs Fowler now at the helm, it was “embarking on an exciting new phase”.

MORE: Principal Jon Platten announces retirement from Open Academy

Graham Dacre. Picture: Denise BradleyGraham Dacre. Picture: Denise Bradley

How has Open performed?

In 2008, it was rated satisfactory by Ofsted – today’s requires improvement.

Since then, it has dipped to inadequate and gained two more level three reports – one at satisfactory and the other at requires improvement. But in 2015, its latest report, it was rated good by the watchdog.

With changing headline figures, grading and measurements, exam results are more difficult to compare.

In January 2008, nine months before academisation, Heartsease High was one of a handful of schools which fell below the government’s floor standard for GCSE results.

But over its first two years as an academy, up to 2010, the level of students who met the five A* to Cs including English and maths jumped from 16pc to 33pc. Since then headline measures have ranged from 34pc to 53pc. In 2017, 41pc of GCSE pupils achieved a new grade four – roughly a C – or above in English and maths. It made the school one of 365 schools to fall below the government’s minimum standard.

MORE: Norwich academy ‘delighted’ at improved Ofsted rating

It will not become a ‘secret society’

As plans for the conversion gained pace, the headteacher at the time vowed the school would not become a “secret society”.

In an interview from 2008, headteacher Lindsay Knight, who became the principal of Open Academy, said the opportunity to become an academy was a “tremendous opportunity that we couldn’t turn down”.

Mrs Knight remained in post until July 2009, when she decided to move on and was replaced by Howard Lay.

But in the 2008 interview, she said: “We would have tremendous freedom to tailor what’s taught to children individually, which will benefit them in achievements, as we want standards to rise, but also in creating a school that’s very welcoming and very open to the community.”

She said the investment and funds would help drive up standards – but vowed that communication remained key.

“If this school goes ahead, it won’t be a secret society... In some ways we are going to have to be more open than a normal state school and make sure we are totally accountable.”

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