State school plan for Thetford academy

WYMONDHAM College is set to be one of a handful of state schools sponsoring an academy if plans go ahead for a three-site project in nearby Thetford.

WYMONDHAM College is set to be one of a handful of state schools sponsoring an academy if plans go ahead for a three-site project in nearby Thetford. Education correspondent STEVE DOWNES spoke to college principal Melvyn Roffe to find out more about the innovative scheme.

Wymondham College is not your average state school.

It is England's largest state boarding school, with 60pc of its 1,200-plus students living on site. And it regularly appears in the top 200 schools for its GCSE and A-level performance.

Deciding to be lead sponsor of a proposed academy in Thetford is typical of the college's “do different” approach.

And if it goes ahead, it is likely to be a departure from your average academy - if there is such a thing.

College principal Melvyn Roffe, who has been at the helm since September 2007, said there were plans to look south down the A11 in a bid to attract Cambridge University as an education partner.

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He said the college may also build on its multiple links with overseas establishments by finding a foreign university to get involved.

The Thetford academy, which would comprise the existing Rosemary Musker and Charles Burrell high schools and a “Thetford Forum” development in the centre of the town, is on the brink of getting government consent.

Mr Roffe said he hoped the government would agree the expression of interest “within a couple of weeks”.

He said he hoped it would open as an academy in existing buildings from September this year. The Forum, catering for 14-19 learning, would be developed later, with plans to put it on the current bus station site once negotiations were finalised over its relocation.

And the final government bill for the innovative academy could be �50m, including �22m to rebuild or radically reshape the two high schools.

The academy will have Easton College and West Suffolk College as co-sponsors and Thetford Grammar School as an education partner.

But Mr Roffe said: “What we will be looking for next is a higher education partner. We are looking towards Cambridge, to see if there is any interest. That would be particularly helpful if the A11 were completely dualled.

“We are also looking at involving an overseas university because one of the aims is to look at Thetford reaching out not just to the neighbouring counties but having a broader understanding of other countries.”

With Thetford earmarked as a growth town and set to expand rapidly, Mr Roffe said the academy would need to cater for 1,600 students, plus 400 in the sixth form.

He said more than 100 Thetford youngsters currently went to school in Bury St Edmunds, while many parents sent their primary school children out of the town.

He said he hoped the introduction of an academy would reverse that trend.

“We are starting with schools that are performing well, but could perform better. This is about creating an all-age education system, using cash and enormous effort to transform performance and perceptions.”

He admitted there would be challenges in “breaking down barriers between the two schools” and incorporating the students into one institution.

He also said plans had been shelved to get representatives from local primary schools on the academy trust, which would run the academy, because it was “becoming unwieldy”. But it would happen “as soon as is practicable”.

Adverts for a principal would be placed “after half-term”, once ministerial approval was secured and a decision had been made on whether to opt for a single principal or a leadership team.

Mr Roffe said: “This is about moving from school improvement to transformation of pupils' prospects. But we wouldn't be doing this if we thought it would be detrimental to Wymondham College. We are already seeing the benefits.”