News and views from north Bristol's urban village

Monday, 18 October 2010

Oasis School Westbury Open Evening

Oasis Trust run the local academy schoolImage via Wikipedia

Went to the Open Evening at Westbury on Trym's new Oasis School last week and was left with the overall impression that Steve Chalke and his team have their work cut out in order to turn this formerly bankrupt Catholic Independent into a flourishing and broad-based community academy.

Greeted at the door as I was by the head - Lynette Carter - who introduced herself by name, I felt immediately immersed in the ethos of a fee-paying independent school. Which, of course, the school still is, until it achieves academy status. Tours of the school were conducted by the uniformed pupils, and everyone was, well, awfully nice.

I was struck, secondly, by how small the school is - both in terms of student numbers - and teaching facilities. More familiar with the large state secondary sector, I was surprised to discover, for instance, only two functioning science labs, one DT room, and a close overlap between the secondary and primary wings of the school.

In addition, the physical fabric of the school has obviously been neglected during the St Ursula's era. The exterior, for instance, reminded me of one of those small French provincial towns that you stumble upon while on holiday: grey rendering peeling away from nineteenth-century brickwork, which seems to have a certain charm when on holiday but, when thinking about your child's secondary, speaks of decline.

I was also surprised by the presence of numerous statues of Mary, and other Roman Catholic paraphernalia around the site, not because they would be out of place in a Catholic school, but because they have been left in place after the school has been taken over by Oasis Community Learning. Although Oasis states in its education charter that "We are motivated by the life, message and example of Jesus Christ", they are not, specifically, a Roman Catholic charity (Steve Chalke is a former Baptist minister) and their academies are " to students of all religious faiths and those of no faith."

It's easier to change a building than it is to change the ethos of those who use the building, of course, and there did seem to be among the existing parents I talked with in the school hall, a hope that the new school (which, interestingly they talked about as a future rather than present institution, despite the change of name) would not abandon its distinctive features. As an independent, St Ursula's was known for being non-selective and welcoming pupils with a range of learning needs, and others who may not have fared that well in a larger school.

Perhaps the Mary statues symbolise exactly where Oasis Westbury is at the moment: in transition, but not very far into the process. Which is not surprising, since the school has been through a roller-coaster of change in 2010. This journey has included the former school going into administration, the City Council buying the land to enable Oasis to re-open as a fee-paying school this academic year, a further drop-off in student numbers, a 25% increase in fees, and the small matter of a general election in which the school featured prominently at a local level.

Steve Chalke is in Bristol this week to update existing parents on the journey towards becoming a state-funded academy. He states that he has been in recent contact with Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, who is "committed" to helping Oasis Westbury Academy status "on, or before, September 2011" and that he is "confident" that this will happen.

Assuming that takes place, there seems plenty of work to do in turning the school into a broad-based community academy. I expect a few feathers will have to ruffled in the process and some difficult decisions will have to be taken by skillful leaders and change managers.

If anyone can pull this off successfully, I reckon Oasis can.

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