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Special report: Brighton and Hove's innovative schools
4:40am Wednesday 19th February 2014 in News
Innovative, initiative, pioneering - they sound like business terms, but these concepts are being hijacked by local secondary schools bringing new ideas into education. In January most of the city's secondary schools achieved a continuing rise in GCSE results. Katy Rice looks at four innovative schools in Brighton and Hove to see if it is a coincidence.
Next week Portslade Aldridge Community Academy (Paca) will host the prestigious official launch of its new £12.7million state-of-the-art building.
Its corridors lead to 12 top notch science labs, where students will take part in cutting-edge science research projects, as well as computer and business hubs, and a specialist centre for science, technology, engineering and mathematics that will give students unprecedented access to academic and business professionals.
That's not all. Paca has developed a series of new academies, with Dance and Cricket Academies already in operation, and Science and Sport Academies launching next week. “I’m certain no other schools in Brighton and Hove offer science and sport academies,” said Paca headteacher James Fox.
“We are also now preparing students for the BRIC economy countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – by developing links with these countries so that when they are ready to go into the workplace, they have the skills and the languages they need.
“These countries are on the horizon and Paca is outward-facing so that we give our students every opportunity to succeed.”
While Paca looks beyond the school gates for inspiration on improving the education of its pupils, other state secondary schools in Brighton and Hove have concentrated on creating innovation from within.
Hove Park School’s headteacher Derek Trimmer last year introduced iPads for all its 1,700 pupils after pledging his school, split into two sites in Hove, would “be the largest and most innovative school in the UK” in the way it uses the latest iPad technology.
Mr Trimmer said: “The traditional lesson hasn't changed much since the invention of the blackboard. We have had a global revolution in the way people communicate, but schools have tried to mould technology to fit their lesson plans, rather than embracing change.
“Last Easter, Hove Park School began to transform the way students learn at school. Every student has access to an iPad. No student has to wait while a computer less powerful than their mobile phone boots up and connects to the internet. Every student can access the best learning tools in the world.
“And we are joining the MOOC revolution – Massive Open Online Courses.
“Our staff are putting their lessons onto iTunesU, which is making it easier for students to learn at their own pace and for parents to work alongside their children.”
He added: “We still have a long way to go, but Hove Park has left its comfort zone and is building a new style of learning, where no child gets left behind.”
Meanwhile, at Varndean School in Balfour Road, Brighton, headteacher William Deighan restructured the school in an innovative schools-within-schools scheme in 2012.
Its design was based on the research premise of community size, which puts the ideal number of a community at 150, and smaller classes to help the school respond more quickly to the individual needs of students.
Mr Deighan said: “The move to our four small schools, Angelou, Russell, Turing and Ellis, has been a great success. Its ultimate aim is to create smaller, more effective and caring communities. Students have a strong identity within their school and thrive on our many inter-school competitions.
“It has worked: results have risen dramatically, attendance has improved by 1.2% and most importantly, students are happier and more settled, as noted in our recent Ofsted.”
Pupils seem to agree.
Ellis senior student Vivi Reader said: “My aims for Ellis this year are to create a welcoming environment for the new year sevens and to build on the sense of community that has already been established.”
And Varndean’s head boy George Harris said: “Being head boy of Varndean and a proud member of Ellis school, I realise there is no end to the great things Ellis can achieve.”
At Blatchington Mill School, its innovative approach to homophobic bullying, which led to the lesbian, gay and bisexual charity Stonewall naming it a “champion school”, brought a visit from Labour leader Ed Miliband last year.
The school has since launched a series of pioneering pupil commissions, each tasked with a separate topic to tackle. The first two were equalities, whose commissioners have tried to change the way homophobic language was used in the school, and technology, which has been exploring e-safety, including neknominations – a daredevil drinking game linked to at least four deaths, and the smartphone app Snapchat, which has been used to send sexually explicit images.
xhead Last September it set up environmental, health, learning, behaviour and charity commissions, tackling issues such as mental health, codified sanctions for behaviour problems and coping with the trauma of frequent testing. Two more commissions are planned for this September.
Blatchington Mill, this year the city’s second highest improver in GCSE results, is the only school in Brighton and Hove to have commissions, which are aimed at enhancing pupils' school lives rather than uppingexam results.
Mr Harrold said: "We feel that we have got the exam results under control. This has a different purpose, to get children ready for the world outside school, and to realise that what you do inside school can have ramifications outside school too. By creating commissioners, we are creating an elite position, and with that goes an expectation to behave in a certain way.
“The commissions are an experiment, but in teaching you experiment all the time - you've got to have a culture of experimentation and innovation.”
Sue Shanks, chairman of Brighton and Hove City Council’s children and young people committee, said its aim is to ensure all children receive the highest quality education and to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.
She said: “Innovation is great when it enables schools to make progress with these wider priorities. However, it should never be an end in itself.
“New technology has a very important role to play in schools. When used wisely it can help teachers deliver lessons that excite and stretch pupils of all abilities, from students who really need a helping hand to gifted and talented students who want to stretch their academic horizons.
"There are some excellent examples of this within the city and our schools are open to new ideas.”