Chester’s Queen’s Park High School is struggling with falling rolls leading to a projected £1.5m deficit but headteacher Lyndsay Watterson is clear there is a brighter future ahead.
“I want this school to be one of the best schools in Chester,” said Miss Watterson, who faces challenges but has several reasons for optimism.
There were good exam results last summer and an Ofsted report shows the Handbridge-based school is heading in the right direction under her strong leadership despite finding the school ‘requires improvement’.
Miss Watterson was described as having ‘transformed the culture and aspirations of the school’ since her appointment.
Contrary to rumours circulating in 2014, the local authority has no intention of closing the school.
Crucially, Queen’s Park High has joined forces with Christleton High School under the management of Christleton Learning Trust after converting to an academy, which becomes active from April 1. This should enable the sharing of resources, the ability to make back-room savings and greater opportunities to enhance the learning experience.
Miss Watterson, who teaches French, said in a newsletter to parents: “I am delighted to inform you that our academy conversion is finally about to become a reality from 1st April, 2017. This means that once we return after the Easter holiday we will officially open as a ‘new school’ – with the same name though as we haven’t changed that – but as an academy within Christleton Learning Trust.”
One immediate impact of conversion was a successful bid for an environmental improvement grant that would enable ‘light refurbishment works’ to improve the appearance of the building.
In addition, a key partner of the learning trust is Bank of America Merrill Lynch and those links have enabled funding to be secured to help ‘build students’ enterprise skills, develop their understanding of the world of work and to raise their aspirations for the future’.
And the partnership with Christleton has resulted in five teachers from Queen’s Park working with five teachers from Christleton in a cross-school lesson study pilot aimed at sharing best practice and developing teaching skill-sets on both sites.
But academies are controversial with the teaching unions because such schools have the power to alter staff pay and conditions and admissions policies. However, Miss Watterson said there would be ‘no change’.
Governance and accountability is another area of concern around academies but Miss Watterson said while the Christleton Learning Trust (CLT) would be the overarching body, the school’s governing body would continue to feed into the management of the school. The trust board would act as ‘a critical friend’.
The influence of business is another issue raised by critics but the headteacher says there should be links with potential employers.
“It’s about how we can learn from each other,” said Miss Watterson, who pointed to a range of relationships with outside bodies including the Storyhouse cultural centre and the English in Chester language school.
Minutes from Cheshire West and Chester Schools Forum reveal just how low pupil numbers are at Queen’s Park. In years 7 to 11 there are just 383 of the school’s 900 capacity. A falling roll fund has been established financed across all schools although it won’t ‘fully bridge the funding gap’ with a significant amount for the CLT to cover.
But the demographics which have adversely affected many secondary schools are turning around so that more pupils will be arriving in future.
And a huge 1,400-strong housing estate is to be built off Wrexham Road, south of the river, that will bring young families to the area whose children will need schooling.
So was the merger with Christleton actually a take-over by another school in a rescue bid?
Miss Watterson is adamant that is not the case, explaining: “We approached Christleton.” And she commented: “I would not be here if this was a take-over. I’m here for this school and I believe passionately in this school.”