Why is a housing association investing money in a new academy that could have funded homes? Helen Clifton finds out
As 1,350 children swarm around the brightly coloured atrium of New Charter Academy during the bustling lunch hour, assistant head Teresa James guards the staircase that leads to the sixth-form classrooms. ‘It’s the only staircase other pupils aren’t allowed to touch - so of course, they all want to go up there,’ she smiles.
They may be forbidden from using the stairs, but the underlying barriers preventing pupils at the Tameside academy from accessing higher education are slowly being removed.
Since the academy was created in 2008, the number of pupils gaining five A* to C GCSE grades, including maths and English, has jumped from 27 per cent to 46 per cent.
All 30 of the students at the sixth form, which opened as part of the new £42 million school building last September, already have university offers, giving the younger pupils some very high targets to hit.
The sixth form is just one of many additions part paid for by the acad-emy’s sponsor, local housing association New Charter Housing Trust Group, which has so far invested £3.5 million.
And for a school with a catchment area that includes some of the most deprived areas of the country - with double the average number of children claiming free dinners - the effect of these changes is not to be underestimated. ‘The sixth form has had a huge impact,’ says Ms James. ‘Historically, college was just a place outside school. Now it is real. We don’t just send pupils on their way to become somebody else’s problem - they are our worry. And that has happened because it is what the sponsors wanted.’
Getting into schools
But why did a housing association get involved in education, and do the results suggest other social landlords should do the same?
The answer to the latter question should be made clearer by the social mobility and social housing task force set up last October by Inside Housing and the Chartered Institute of Housing to examine the groundbreaking work of landlords such as New Charter, Gentoo and Bolton at Home.
The SMASH task force, chaired by Lord Richard Best, has brought together housing professionals and academics to share best practice. Its findings are being presented at the CIH’s annual conference in Manchester next week.
For New Charter chief executive Ian Munro, who has contributed to SMASH, becoming a school sponsor makes perfect business sense. Nationally, it is the only landlord besides Sunderland’s Gentoo to do so.
‘By investing in the school, we meet a whole load of social objectives,’ Mr Munro says. ‘It’s not just the financial support we provide that makes a difference - it’s the links we have with the community too. These relationships help us bring together life inside and outside school and build better neighbourhoods.
‘We’re seeing attendance significantly improve at the school,’ the chief executive adds. ‘There are lower numbers of young people who are not in education, employment or training because they are engaged instead of having nothing to do.’
In 2007, Tameside Council made a bid for £120 million from the Building Schools for the Future fund to rebuild 10 local schools - a condition of which was the creation of an academy to replace two existing schools.
The authority wanted a non-corporate sponsor which had proved its commitment to the community.
‘We both came to the same conclusions,’ Mr Munro explains. ‘The intention was to create a 21st-century school with 21st-century facilities, and raise aspirations throughout the neighbourhood.’
So, in 2008, New Charter Academy replaced the dilapidated Stamford High School and Hartshead High College, deemed by Ofsted as ‘failing’.
Filled with funky furniture and fittings, the academy’s building is light and airy. Open-plan classrooms complement ‘show and tell’ resource rooms with large screens, science labs, a mixing studio, an outdoor amphitheatre, drama studios, and themed gardens. Sports facilities include Football Association-standard football pitches, netball and tennis courts, and an astroturf pitch.
Year 10 pupil Nathan Beckles, 15, of Oldham, says the new building has improved all aspects of school life.
‘It makes you proud to be here,’ he states.’ You’d have to be pretty miserable not to be impressed by this school just by looking at it. Because of the open spaces, teachers can see everything and behaviour has improved. There’s hardly any graffiti.
At Hartshead a lot of people didn’t have respect for the building,’ he says.
‘The classrooms are comfortable and you can just get your head down and work harder - rather than being in Hartshead with a leaking roof.’
Year 8 pupil Chloe Knagg, 13, of Denton, says the new school will help her realise her dream of becoming a jockey. Horse riding is taught as part of PE GCSE. ‘We’ve got great IT too,’ she says. ‘In other schools you don’t get Apple Macs; everybody says how lucky we are to have them.’
The academy, a specialist business college, also works closely with New Charter to support students to become more employable in a competitive jobs market. Around 40 Year 11 apprentices have worked in the New Charter offices over the past three years, while staff from the legal affairs and accountancy departments have mentored students.
Nathan, who plans to continue studying at the school’s sixth form, admits he worries about getting a job. ‘My dad is always talking about the state of the economy. But the teachers here push you so they can get the best out of you.’
New Charter’s financial contribution to the academy is made up of a £2 million endowment fund, which yields an annual interest of £40,000, topped up by an ‘enrichment’ fund of £1.5 million for extra-curricular activities.
It has been spent on music lessons, educational trips, a graduate teacher-training programme, and sessions for the whole school designed to raise attainment, which include business and enterprise activities.
Stephen Ball is the executive director (head teacher) of the New Charter Academy. He says: ‘We are providing extra-curricular activities that middle-class children take for granted.’
Mr Ball denies that New Charter’s lack of educational experience is a problem. ‘They are successful leaders and they expect to see that same leadership in the school. What they care about is whether we are doing everything possible to bring about change for these youngsters.’
The academy is run by the Great Academies Education Trust, which meets every three months and has overall responsibility for strategy and finances. Mr Munro is chair, and New Charter appoints all members.
But while New Charter has helped to fund the academy and provide training, it leaves the teaching to the professionals. ‘They haven’t wanted to meddle,’ assistant head Ms James says. ‘There is a healthy respect.’
New Charter, which currently owns 18,500 homes, plans to spend £75 million over the next three years building or buying 800 new properties.
Although the £2 million endowment it gave to the academy could have created 20 new homes, and despite a local waiting list of 7,500 in Tameside, Mr Munro believes the investment is better off in the school.
‘We are building a brand that people are happy to be part of. We have the highest tenant satisfaction for an housing association of our size in the country,’ he says, adding that the academy investment came from New Charter’s profit-making construction arm, not from rents. ‘The community were happy too - a quarter of pupils are our tenants.’
The partnership has been such a success that in April Tameside Council approached New Charter, which took the opportunity to sponsor Silver Springs Primary, the Tameside’s first ever primary academy.
‘You hope that these youngsters will change their communities for the better,’ says Mr Ball. ‘I can’t imagine there is any better way of investing.’
Life-cycle approach: Bolton at Home
Bolton at Home invests £2 million annually in social mobility schemes, made up of £1 million of its own, plus match funding.
‘With us it’s very much about a life-cycle approach,’ says chief executive Jon Lord. ‘Some kids on the estates don’t even expect to get jobs. We are looking at four or five generations of worklessness.’
Eight of the housing association’s staff help tenants find appropriate training schemes, and for the past three years the association has run an apprentice scheme with Bolton Community College which trains around 70 school-leavers each year.
Since 1998 it has invested £400,000 annually in a community arts fund. It puts on an annual event to help children find out about university, while parents visit schools to change their perceptions of education. It also runs an adult work club with 300 attendees; 48 residents have gone on to find employment and 10 are volunteering since the beginning of 2011.
Art of living: Gentoo
Sunderland landlord Gentoo sponsors local school Academy 360, which opened in 2008 after the merger of Pennywell School and Quarry View Primary School. In 2009, the school moved into a new £25 million building.
Gentoo has invested a £1 million endowment fund in the school to support the educationally disadvantaged and £150,000 to introduce a new curriculum initiative for younger children.
Gentoo believes the redevelopment of an area goes beyond building new houses. ‘We are all about improving what we call “the art of living”,’ says John Cragg, Gentoo’s deputy chief executive. ‘We aim to do this by investing in people, planet and property.’
Nearly 90 per cent of Academy 360 pupils have achieved five A* to C GCSE passes since it opened.
‘Education plays a key part in developing communities,’ says Pat Havord, group head of learning. ‘Academy 360 gave us a perfect opportunity to get involved and complement the rest of our work.’