MORE than a billion pounds is being spent transforming Barnsley's secondary schools in an attempt to get the town away from the bottom of the GCSE league tables.
Education bosses are creating nine "advanced learning centres" (ALCs) to replace Barnsley's existing 12 secondaries and two special schools, with the first two opening their doors to pupils tomorrow.
League tables, published last week, revealed the town had the lowest GCSE pass rates in the region and the second worst results in the entire country.
Despite record results in Barnsley schools, almost 60 per cent of pupils failed to hit the national benchmark of five A* to C GCSEs grades including English and maths.
Now the council is set to open the first two of nine centres being built at an overall cost of 300m to raise standards of both pupils and the wider community.
Carlton ALC and Dearne ALC are the first to open their doors with pupils starting lessons in the new facilities tomorrow. The centres replace Dearne High and Carlton Community College.
Three more centres are set to open by April: with schools in Darton, Kirk Balk and Penistone closing and re-opening in new buildings as ALCs. Another four will be built by September 2012 to complete the overhaul of the town's school system.
Five of the new centres replace existing schools while four of the ALCs are being created as a result of eight schools being merged.
Schools have been rebranded as advanced learning centres (ALCs) because they will also provide adult education, community facilities and will be open for 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for 48 weeks of the year.
The new centres are being developed under a private finance initiative contract with the facilities being run for 25 years by developer Laing O'Rourke.
Barnsley Council is paying 5m a year for 25 years at which point it will take over ownership of the nine ALCS. The overall cost of the project to build and run the new schools is 1.2bn – with the majority of the cash coming from the Government.
Barnsley is one of the last education authorities in the country to be able to rebuild its entire secondary school estate using funding from a national scheme which has now been axed by the coalition.
The ALCs are being built with funding from the Building Schools for the Future programme, (BSF) which was scrapped by Education Secretary Michael Gove last year.
The new centres have been created as part of a strategy to "remake learning" which was launched after a critical Ofsted inspection of the town's education authority in 2004.
Seven years on, Barnsley still finds itself near the bottom of national league tables based on last summer's GCSE results but education bosses are confident ALCs will raise standards.
Phil Lawson, an assistant executive director at Barnsley Council, said: "There is no point having all these shiny new buildings if we do not see better outcomes at the end of it. Most education authorities in the country which have had BSF cash have gone for a mix of complete rebuilds and some refurbishment projects. At Barnsley we have gone for something more radical and are rebuilding every single school.
"The only other local authority to do this was Knowsley but they replicated the same design at all our their schools whereas all of our rebuilds have been designed individually. The ALCs are part of a plan to rebuild the local economy and give people the right sort of qualifications to give them the best chance of advancement in employment and life."
Mr Lawson said the challenge the council faced was promoting the importance of education in a town where the economy had been dependent on mining and where some children were growing up in families where two generations had gone without work.
Coun Linda Burgess, Barnsley Council's cabinet member for children and young people's services, said: "This could be the last time anyone has the chance to completely rebuild all of their schools. We realise this is a once in a lifetime opportunity." She told the Yorkshire Post she believed the ALCs would raise standards and Barnsley's league table rankings.
Community gets fresh chances
THE NEW advanced learning centres will not only provide 21st century school facilities for Barnsley pupils studying toward their GCSEs, they will also provide new opportunities for post 16 learners and the wider community.
The first ALCs to open this year's include two floodlit industry standard building sites at Darton and Kirk Balk which will allow construction students to build two-storey houses on the school grounds while another of the new schools, Dearne ALC, has a professional kitchen and restaurant to allow catering students to cook in a work environment.
The new ALCs also includes classrooms with flexible walls which allow larger learning spaces to be created.