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Three-into-one school project set to unlock major new learning opportunities at Aberdare Community School

Three-into-one school project set to unlock major new learning opportunities at Aberdare Community School

A £50 million investment is set to change the face of secondary education in a deprived Valley area by merging three struggling schools into a new flagship establishment designed to offer wide choice, top standards and the very latest learning and leisure facilities.

Aberdare Community School, scheduled to receive its first students in April 2015, aims not only to boost the education and life prospects of local youngsters but also to deliver some of the best community amenities in Wales for residents of the upper Cynon Valley.

The overall project includes a £30m new school building, part-funded through the Welsh Government’s 21st Century Schools programme, and extensive new access road infrastructure in the vicinity. It was first put forward by Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council in 2009 and is now rapidly coming to fruition.

Aberdare community school

Bright open-plan learning areas, leading-edge classroom technology,  an eco-friendly building with low running costs and state-of-the-art indoor and outdoor sports facilities are all part of an ambitious package conceived in response to the area’s needs.

The school, which will be fully operational with 1,600 learners by September 2015, brings together Aberdare Girls School, Aberdare High School for Boys and Blaengwawr  Comprehensive, all of which had surplus places, limited sixth form subject choice and levels of attainment that were very mixed and causing concern.

Said RCT Director of Education, Chris Bradshaw:

“The current sites are very tired and not fit for the 21st century. The Girls School building is over 100 years old, while the other two date back to the 1960s. All the existing facilities are well past their sell-by date.”

By contrast, the new building, which will be the biggest school in the Valleys, will enjoy a host of modern facilities. These include a university-style science lecture theatre, a hi-tech laboratory accommodating 80 learners, three music rooms, a recording studio, a film-editing suite, multiple sound booths for language learning, 10 computer suites, three art rooms, a dance studio, drama theatre, and eight specialist technology rooms with dedicated facilities for textiles, catering, engineering, electronics, graphics and resistant materials. Moreover the school will be fully wireless and there will a ratio of one computer for every two pupils.

One of the big gains from the opening of the new school will be the creation of a large sixth form of nearly 300 students with a wide subject choice covering both academic and vocational options. The three existing schools have very small sixth forms with limited choice, and many pupils currently have had to travel between up to five different schools in order to access the subjects they want.Aberdare community school construction

Sports and leisure facilities available to the new Community School will include a 33-metre swimming pool eight-court sports hall, fitness suite and multiple all-weather playing surfaces for football, rugby and cricket as well as facilities for netball, basketball, cycling and martial arts, plus pursuits such as astronomy and photography. Facilities will be shared with the local community.

Although the Aberdare High School site was first considered as the base for the new building, it was decided that the preferred option would be to use the land around the Michael Sobell Leisure Centre in Aberdare. This not only provides a neutral site, more acceptable to all three schools, but will deliver a showpiece new facility at a landmark location in the heart of the town and close to public transport.

The investment also includes a major upgrade of the adjacent A4059, a new river bridge to provide a second access to the site, safe cycle routes and new pedestrian crossings in the vicinity.

Given the implications of the change for parents and pupils over a wide area, the local authority undertook one of its most extensive consultations ever.

The director of education explained that there was initial anxiety among some parents, who felt smaller schools provided a better educational environment for their children.

He added:

“We ran a lot of consultation meetings with parents, governors, staff and pupils from all three schools during which we were able to show them the designs of the new school. They could see that it was going to happen and they bought into that. Some people wanted to keep the status quo, so we had to go through due process and convince them. The Welsh Government were 100% behind us. We have probably done more consultation on this than anything previously.”

Although the Aberdare Community School building won’t be ready for occupation until Spring 2015, the local authority appointed Susan Davies, as head teacher in November 2012 and, in February 2013; she began the task of preparing for the new era.

Her stated aim is to match the quality of the new physical facilities with the quality of teaching and learning in the school, and to establish an ethos of high aspiration and high achievement among a school population, of whom 30% qualify for free school meals.  

The process of integrating young people from the different schools is already well underway with several ‘transition days’ taking place to bring pupils together around specific learning projects in order to allow them get to know each other. More of these events are planned over the coming months.Skate park construction

In addition, there is extensive training for teachers, particularly in literacy and numeracy intervention techniques and in the use of data to monitor learners’ progress and identify where intervention is needed. There will be a particular focus on intervention in years 7-9.

Mrs Davies said she hoped the new surroundings and advanced facilities would complement the talents of the 78-strong staff; inspiring them to perform consistently at their best.

She said she found her early appointment very helpful as it has given her time and space to prepare thoroughly for the opening and to lay the groundwork for the strong learning ethos that will be inherent in the new Community School.

This preparation even includes planning interior decorations to motivate learners.

“We have been painting pictures of Welsh heroes for the walls; people like Aneurin Bevan, Bertrand Russell, Professor Lyn Evans and the Stereophonics. As soon as you walk into the building, you will be bombarded with images of success. The whole culture will be that it is cool to work and succeed,” she said.

From September 2014 all three existing schools will have a common uniform and a fully aligned timetable in order to pave the way for a smooth transition to a single site, with minimal disruption or changing of teachers.Skate park in use

The first group of students will transfer across in April 2015 – with priority being given to exam years – with the rest following on a phased basis until everyone is in situ for the start of the Autumn term in September 2015.

The new building, which will be the largest school in the region, has been constructed to the highest energy-efficient standards, including the installation of solar panels and rainwater harvesting units.

Seventy-five per cent of construction workers were local to the RCT area, with 30 of them previously being long-term unemployed. Moreover former pupils from the three local schools are being been trained as apprentices during the project, including 19-year old Oliver Rennie from Aberdare High School for Boys, who will also be supported by contractors Laing O’Rourke through an engineering degree.

Said Dave Powell, RCT Project Director for the project:

“It is great to think that a former pupil of one of the local schools is building and shaping a new 21st century environment for his fellow pupils.”

The contractors have also captured the whole project on a web cam so that pupils can monitor progress and use it  as a learning resource.