‘We want parents to see that there are opportunities for their children’

It’s billed as Yorkshire’s super school, but can a new building, even one costing £50m, really kick start the regeneration of Barnsley? Sarah Freeman reports.

Since he was appointed last March, Nick Bowen has spent much of his time on a building site. As the head of Barnsley’s new Horizon Community College, he’s been on first name terms with the workmen who have been transforming a 46-acre site into what will be the biggest school in the country.

Known locally and not without good reason as the super school, it was one of the last to sneak under the wire before the axe fell on Labour’s Building Schools for the Future project in the early days of the coalition government.

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When it opens its doors this September, more than £50m will have been spent on the school. Whether the cost is justified will be determined in the years to come, but at the moment at least Bowen knows the questions at the forefront of most people’s mind have little to do with education policy. The prospective pupils want to know what their new uniform will look like; their parents want to know how much it will cost.

“Ah, yes the uniform,” he says. “When you are building a new school from scratch what the pupils will wear sounds like the last thing you need to worry about, but it’s incredibly important. There’s a lot about this school which will be state of the art, but I also want it to uphold traditional values and the uniform is part of that.”

When the 2,300 pupils file in for their first assembly in the autumn they will be wearing dark green blazers, but the uniform aside, HCC is far from traditional. Formed from a merger of nearby Kingstone and Holgate Schools – the latter, Michael Parkinson’s old grammar school, will close in its centenary year – its prospectus is unashamedly glossy.

Alongside the classrooms, divided into five separate hubs, the college will boast a 420-seat theatre, state-of-the-art science labs, sports centre, dance and recording studios. It even has its own mobile phone app.

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Much like the architects, Bradford-born Bowen also has grand ambitions and sees the school as central to reversing Barnsley’s economic decline. It’s a Herculean task. Towards the end of last year, Barnsley, along with Rotherham, was named as one of the towns worst placed to weather the stormy economy.

The bleak forecast was dealt another blow last week when a report said the town’s many digital companies, which it was hoped would fill the gap left by traditional industries, were struggling to recruit local candidates because many lacked even basic skills. Figures showed that just 44 per cent of the working population have five or more GCSEs – 15 per cent below the national average – and 13.5 per cent have no qualifications at all.

“Barnsley is an area of high unemployment and the aftermath of its reliance on coal mining still hasn’t been fully addressed. It needs to find its way in a new era,” says Bowen. “If Barnsley is to thrive it needs enterprise and it needs young entrepreneurs to kick start that regeneration. A school the size of this it can have a big impact on an area.

“I want to see the Royal Shakespeare Company travel to Barnsley and I want the facilities we have here to be a springboard. It doesn’t bother me if the children who come through the college leave Barnsley, we want more people going onto university. For me, it’s much more about transforming families and the culture of the town.

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“We want children to see their older brothers and sisters enjoying learning and being successful. We want their parents to see that there are opportunities for their children.

“A college like this, says that someone is willing to invest time and money in Barnsley and that speaks volumes.”

It’s perhaps fitting that the college stands on the site once occupied by clothing retailer SR Gent. In its heyday, when it was one of Marks & Spencer’s main suppliers, it had a 4,500-strong workforce, but when, after 60 years of trading, it closed in 2005, Barnsley’s jobless total grew even further.

Bowen stops short of promising HCC will be able to work miracles, but he does have form when it comes to blending the teaching of traditional education with entrepreneurial skills.

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In his last headteacher post at St Benet Biscop in the North East, he won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise, normally reserved for business.

“It was a similar area to Barnsley and we decided to encourage students to set up their own businesses. They were so successful that we ended up launching our own social enterprise. Over a period of time, the students gained credibility and were asked by the local authority to organise the annual Christmas lights switch-on. They were given a budget of £10,000 and the event went from being a bit of damp squib to a whole fortnight of Christmas markets attracting thousands of people.

“Crucially it changed the perceptions many had of young people in the area and that’s what I want to do in Barnsley. The town doesn’t need passive citizens who expect to be spoon fed, it needs people with ideas and who believe that they can put them into effect.”

Running a school on business principles may be an uncomfortable prospect for some, but that’s exactly how HCC will operate. Bowen is looking to appoint an equivalent to a deputy head whose job will be to make sure the building is in use long after the school bell. Alongside income from hiring out the facilities to business, there will be an on-site nursery, a programme of adult learning and Bowen is predicting an annual turnover of around £1m.

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“The reality is that local authorities don’t provide as many services as they used to. They are shrinking and as a result it creates a new marketplace that schools like this can capitalise on,” he says.

“It was something we had at the forefront of our minds when we were naming the college. One of the things we all agreed on was that it shouldn’t just be the name of the road. It’s a sports centre, a theatre, a company and, I hope, a turning point for Barnsley.”

Bowen has recently started the process of appointing staff, the vast majority of whom will come from the two existing high schools .

“I’ve been working on my own at a desk for the past year, so it will be good to get some staff on the building and I also recognise that for the teachers of both merging schools it’s something that has been hanging over them for a while. The jobs have been ring-fenced so anyone from Holgate or Kingston who wants to work at Horizon will be able to.

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“Of course the reality is more complex. While there will be the same amount of students and therefore the same amount of teaching staff, there will be obviously duplication in terms of heads of departments. Some people may not get the job they want, but they will be offered other opportunities. After that process if there are vacancies then we will advertise externally.

“There is a lot of heritage and it’s important that while we are moving into a brand new building we take all that’s good about these two schools with us.”

Bowen has been in teaching for almost 25 years and while his career choice may have been accidental, his designs on Barnsley’s education are anything but.

“When I left university I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so like a lot of people I enrolled on a PGCE course,” he says. “One day I was on a placement, sat at the back of an English class. The teacher was fantastic and right there and then I knew I would never look back. Barnsley needs and deserves to have the best school in the country and I hope that’s what we can finally give it.”