New school plan to slash absence rates in Doncaster

Artist's impression of Bentley Big Picture Learning school
Artist's impression of Bentley Big Picture Learning school

This is the school which education bosses believe could transform the futures of hundreds of Doncaster youngsters who currently refuse to attend.

Instead of youngsters just going into lessons in the classroom, children who attend the new site in Bentley will spend time doing work experience for several days a week, alongside time in the classroom.

The new £1.8 million project, called the Big Picture Learning School, will be based on the site previously occupied by Doncaster Council's Bentley Training Centre, behind Bentley High Street Primary School.

And this week, an agreement to set the school up was signed between the council, funders, and the organisation which would run it.

It is now just waiting for the green light from Ofsted before it takes its first intake of pupils and for the completion of the modular building that will house it.

The scheme is aimed at 11 to 16 year olds. targeting those with some of the worst attendance records in the borough.

It would take children with attendance rates as low as 25 per cent, and has a target of increasing that figure to 98 per cent through the new courses.

A total of eight pupils will become the first group of children to attend the school, and they are due to start in January.

That number will increase over the year, rising to 60 by September.

Damian Allen, Director of People for Doncaster Council, who is in charge of education in the borough, said the new scheme would be funded on a payment by results basis.

The scheme has funding from the Life Chances Fund, an £80 million Government fund to provide payment-by-results contracts for locally developed projects by socially minded investors. It will be run by the Big Issue Foundation, which will make a profit from the school if it manages to improve the outcomes for the children attending the school.

Mr Allen said: “This is a school which could benefit children at risk of exclusion or poor attendance.

“Doncaster has seen a rise in the level of permanent and fixed terms exclusions. Some of that may be due to the breadth of the curriculum. There has also been an increase in anxiety and depression causing poor attendance.

“We could have a very diverse group of eight young people starting in January, so we have to tailor our approach to meet the individual needs.

“Where Big Picture schools have operated in the past, they have seen the children’s attendance rise to 93 per centre. Boroughwide in Doncaster, the figure is 92 per cent at all mainstream schools.

“Our target is to get a figure of 98 per cent at the new school.”

The schools have already been run in America and other countries, but the school opening in Doncaster next month will be the first in Britain.

Mr Allen said figures showed that of the children who leave the Big Picture  schools and do not go into further education, 88 per cent move into employment.

Mr Allen said they taught skills such as mental toughness, resilience and built confidence, and the impact the school had on building mental toughness would be among the outcomes that were measures to decide what the foundation running the school would be paid.

Some organisations have already pledged to sign up to take youngsters as interns, as part of their education, such as the Manna community interest company, which is based next door to the school. Manna are one of a number of social enterprises on the same business estate.

Doncaster Council itself also plans to take pupils.

The organisations taking on the interns will give them a ‘mentor’ while they are there. The school will provide an ‘advisor’, who is effectively their teacher.

Finding the internships is the responsibility of the school, and they could run for up to four years.

“We want something that builds on their interests and stretches them,” said Mr Allen.

He recalled a case of a youngster who took part in a scheme who he met in New Zealand.

“He had a great interest in animation and video,” he said. “He didn’t go to mainstream school, but ran his own video business at the age of 15. He went onto to do an internship at a film production organisation. He was interviewing a Government minister when I met him, and very professionally.

“There are clear expectations on the pupils, it is is made clear what they have to bring too.”

Broader work

The new Big Picture School will not be suitable for all the youngsters in Doncaster with problems with attendance and mainstream schools.

But it will be a part in a wider series of measures that education bosses are looking to take to reduce the borough’s absentee rates in the classrooms.

Mr Allen said: “There will be people who are not ready for Big Picture Learning. Some may need different help, or not have the right attitude.”

But Riana Nelson, the council’s assistant director of partnerships and operational delivery added: “Nearly 300 young people will benefit from this new school over the next six years.

“We want to engage with their values and passions.”

She said the school was part of a broader plan looking at what provision could be provided for children who could not keep or sustain mainstream education.

Some youngsters could be helped by a planned special school for Communication and Interaction special educational needs that will be established in Doncaster in 2020, near Hungerhill School.

Others would attend pupil referral units, or learning centres within mainstream schools.

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Similar schools model

Mr Allen believes the new Big Picture School is similar in some ways to the borough’s new free schools.

The XP School and XP East school, both sited on Middle Bank, near Doncaster Carr, were opened over the last two years to offer an alternative learning scheme.

They are run using a scheme called expeditionary learning, in which pupils learn by taking part in projects, which have an end product, often a book which is then sold in the community.

Both schools are now over subscribed and the first of the two schools was rated as outstanding by Ofsted in its first inspection.

Mr Allen said: “The XP schools are small schools, with two form entry of about 50 pupils per school year. 

“Each has a proven evidence based model, with the whole school experience based around that model.”